Posted by saformo on 14 diciembre 2010


The question to be considered is not whether Socialism is right or wrong, but whether Shelley was or was not a Socialist; and it may not be unfair to contend, that if it can be shown that Shelley was a Socialist, a prima facia case, at least, is in the judgment of every Shelley lover made out in favour of Socialism.

That the question at issue may be clearly understood, let us state in the briefest possible way what Socialism means to some of us. (1) That there are inequality and misery in the world; (2) that this social inequality, this misery of the many and this happiness of the few are the necessary outcome of our social conditions; (3) that the essence of these social conditions is that the mass of the people, the working class, produce and distribute all commodities, while the minority of the people, the middle and upper class possess these commodities; (4) that this initial tyranny of the possessing class over the producing class is based on the present wage-system, and now maintains all other forms of oppression, such as that of monarchy or clerical rule, or police despotism; (5) that this tyranny of the few over the many is only possible because the few have obtained possession of the land, the raw materials, the machinery, the banks, the railways, in a word, of all the means of production and distribution of commodities, and have, as a class, obtained possession of these by no superior virtue, effort or self-denial, but by either force or fraud (6) lastly, that the approaching change in “civilised” society will be a revolution, or in the words of Shelley “the system of human society as it exists at present must be overthrown from the foundations.” The two classes at present existing will be replaced be a single class consisting of the whole of the healthy and sane members of the community, possessing all the means of production and distribution in common, and working in common for the production and distribution of commodities.

Again let us say that we are not now concerned with the accuracy or inaccuracy of these principles. But we are concerned with the question whether they were, or were not, held by Shelley. If he enunciated views such as these, or even approximating to these, it is clear that we must admit that Shelley was a teacher as well as a poet. The large and interesting question whether a poet has or has not a right to be didactic as well as merely descriptive, analytical, musical, cannot be entered upon here. In passing we may note that poets have a habit of doing things whether they have the right or not.

For the purpose of our study the following plan is suggested. I. A note or two on Shelley himself and his own personality, as bearing on his relations to Socialism. II. On those, who, in this connection had most influence upon his thinking. III. His attacks on tyranny, and his singing for liberty, in the abstract. IV. And in the concrete. V. His clear perception of the class struggle. VI. His insight into the real meaning of such words as “freedom,’’ “justice,” “crime,” “labour,” “property,” to-day. VII. His practical, his exceedingly practical nature in respect to the remedies for the ills of society. VIII. His comprehension of the fact that a reconstruction of society is inevitable, is imminent. IX. His pictures of the future, “delusions that were no delusions,” as he says. X. A reference to the chief works in which his socialistic ideas found expression. We cannot hope in this article to deal with more than the first six of these divisions. The remaining four we shall be glad, if opportunity offers to consider upon some future occasion.

Shelley’s own Personality. He was the child of the French Revolution. “The wild-eyed women” thronging round the path of Cythna as she went through the great city were from the streets of Paris, and he, more than any other of his time, knew the real strength and beauty of this wild mother of his and ours. With his singular poetical and historical insight he saw the real significance of the holy struggle. Another singer of that melodious time, Byron, was also a child of the same Revolution. But his intellectual fore-runners were Voltaire and his school, and the Rousseau of the Nouvelle Héloise, whilst those of Shelley were Baboeuf and the Rousseau of the Contrat Social. It is a wise child that knows his own father. As Marx, who understood the poets as well as he understood the philosophers and economists, was wont to say: “The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand them and love them rejoice that Byron died at thirty-six, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois; they grieve that Shelley died at twenty-nine, because he was essentially a revolutionist, and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of Socialism.”

The outbreak of the Revolution was only three years in advance of Shelley’s birth. Throughout Europe in the earlier part of this century reaction was in full swing. In England there were trials for blasphemy, trials for treason, suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, misery everywhere. Shelley saw — not as Professor Dowden alternately has it, “thought he saw” — in the French Revolution an incident of the movement towards a reconstruction of society. He flung himself into politics, and yet he never ceased singing.

Every poem of Shelley’s is stained with his intense individuality. Perhaps for our purpose the Lines written on the Euganean Hills, the Lionel of Rosalind and Helen, and Prince Athanase afford the best exemplars. But let us also keep in remembrance Mary Shelley’s testimony to the especial value of Peter Bell the Third, in respect to the social and religious views of her husband. “No poem contains more of Shelley’s peculiar views with regard to the errors into which many of the wisest have fallen, and of the pernicious effects of certain opinions on society … Though, like the burlesque drama of Swellfoot, it must be looked on as a plaything, it has … so much of himself in it that it cannot fail to interest greatly, and by right belongs to the world for whose instruction and benefit it was written.”

And now having quoted her we may quote himself upon himself. Whether wholly unconsciously, or with the modest self-consciousness of genius he has written, lines and lines that are word-portraits of himself. Of these only one or two familiar instances can be taken.

He was one of —

“The sacred few who could not tame
Their spirits to the conquerors.”
[Triumph of Life].
“And then I clasped my hands and looked around —
But none was near to mock my streaming eyes,
Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground —
So without shame, I spake: — “I will be wise,
And just, and free, and mild, if in me lies
Such power, for I grow weary to behold
The selfish and the strong still tyrannise
Without reproach or check.” I then controlled
My tears, my heart grew calm, and I was meek and bold.
“And from that hour did I with earnest thought
Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore,
Yet nothing that my tyrants knew or taught
I cared to learn, but from that secret store
Wrought linked armour for myself, before
It might walk forth to war among mankind;
Thus power and hope were strengthened more and more
Within me, till there came upon my mind
A sense of loneliness, a thirst with which I pined.”
[Laon and Cytha]

He was one of —

“Those who have struggled, and with resolute will
Vanquished earth’s pride and meanness, burst the chains,
The icy chains of custom, and have shone
The day-stars of their age.”
[Queen Mab.]

The dedication of The Cenci to Leigh Hunt may be taken as if Shelley was communing with his own heart.

“One more gentle, honourable, innocent and brave; one of more exalted toleration for all who do and think evil, and yet himself more free from evil; one who knows better how to receive and how to confer a benefit though he must ever confer far more than he can receive; one of simpler, and, in the highest sense of the word, of purer life and manners I never knew.”
[Dedication of The Cenci.]

Pure-minded, earnest-souled, didactic poet, philosopher, prophet, then he is. But add to this, if you will rightly estimate the immense significance of his advocacy of any political creed, the fact already noted of his extraordinary political insight; and add also, if you will rightly estimate the value of his adherence to any scientific truth, the fact that he had a certain conception of evolution long before it had been enunciated in clear language by Darwin, or had even entered seriously into the region of scientific possibilities. Of his acuteness as historical observer, one general instance has already been given in connection with the French Revolution. Yet another less obvious but even more astounding example is furnished by his poems on Napoleon. Shelley was the first, was indeed the only man of his time to see through Napoleon. The man whom every one in Europe at that period took for a hero or a monster, Shelley recognised as a mean man, a slight man, greedy for gold, as well as for the littleness of empire. His instinct divined a Napoleon “the little” in Napoleon “the great.” That which Michelet felt was true, that which it was left for Lanfrey to prove as a historical fact, the conception of Napoleon that is as different from the ordinary one, as an ordinary person is from Shelley, this “dreamer” had.

In 1816 we find him writing:

“I hated thee, fallen tyrant! I did groan
To think that a most unambitious slave,
Like thou, shouldst dance and revel on the grave
Of Liberty.”

and in 1821, the year of Napoleon’s death.

“Napoleon’s fierce spirit rolled,
In terror, and blood, and gold,
A torrent of ruin to death from his birth”

By instinct, intuition, whatever we are to call that fine faculty that feels truths before they are put into definite language, Shelley was an Evolutionist. He translated into his own pantheistic language the doctrine of the eternity of matter and the eternity of motion, of the infinite transformation of the different forms of matter into each other, of different forms of motion into each other, without any creation or destruction of either matter or motion. But that he held these scientific truths as part of his creed, there can be no doubt. You have the doctrine, certainly in a pantheistic form, but certainly there, in the letter to Miss Hitchener. “As the soul which now animates this frame was once the vivifying principle of the lowest link in the chain of existence, so is it ultimately destined to attain the highest.” (Letters VI., p.12).  In Queen Mab:

“Spirit of Nature! here!
In this interminable wilderness
Of worlds, at whose immensity
Even soaring fancy staggers,
Here is thy fitting temple.
Yet not the lightest leaf
That quivers to the passing breeze
Is less instinct with thee
Yet not the meanest worm
That lurks in graves and fattens on the dead
Less shares thy eternal breath .

Of the two great principles affecting the development of the individual and of the race, those of heredity and adaptation, he had a clear perception, although they as yet were neither accurately defined nor even named. He understood that men and peoples were the result of their ancestry and of their environment. Two prose fragments in illustration of this. One is: “But there must be a resemblance which does not depend upon their own will, between all the writers of any particular age. They cannot escape from subjection to a common influence which arises out of an infinite combination of circumstances belonging to the times in which they live, though each is in a degree the author of the very influence by which his being is thus pervaded. Thus, the tragic poets of the age of Pericles; the Italian revivers of learning; those mighty intellects of our own country that succeeded the Reformation, the translators of the Bible, Shakespeare, Spenser, the dramatists of the reign of Elizabeth, and Lord Bacon, the colder spirits of the interval that succeeded; all resemble each other and differ from every other in their several classes. In this view of things Ford can no more be called the imitator of Shakespeare, than Shakespeare the imitator of Ford. There were perhaps few other joints of resemblance between these two men, than that which the universal and inevitable influence of their age produced. And this is an influence which neither the meanest scribbler, nor the sublimest genius of any era can escape, and which I have not attempted to escape.” (F. I. p.57-58).

The other is:

“It is less the character of the individual than the situation in which he is placed which determines him to be honest or dishonest.”  (Letter to Hunt).

This extraordinary power of seeing things clearly and of seeing them in their right relations one to another, shown not alone in the artistic side of his nature, but in the scientific, the historical, the social, is a comfort and strength to us that hold in the main the beliefs, made more sacred to us in that they were his, and must give every lover of Shelley pause when he finds himself parting from the Master on any fundamental question of economics, of faith, of human life.


So now my summer-task is ended, Mary,
And I return to thee, mine own heart’s home;
As to his Queen some victor Knight of Faery,
Earning bright spoils for her enchanted dome;
Nor thou disdain, that ere my fame become _5
A star among the stars of mortal night,
If it indeed may cleave its natal gloom,
Its doubtful promise thus I would unite
With thy beloved name, thou Child of love and light.

The toil which stole from thee so many an hour, _10
Is ended,–and the fruit is at thy feet!
No longer where the woods to frame a bower
With interlaced branches mix and meet,
Or where with sound like many voices sweet,
Waterfalls leap among wild islands green, _15
Which framed for my lone boat a lone retreat
Of moss-grown trees and weeds, shall I be seen;
But beside thee, where still my heart has ever been.

Thoughts of great deeds were mine, dear Friend, when first
The clouds which wrap this world from youth did pass. _20
I do remember well the hour which burst
My spirit’s sleep. A fresh May-dawn it was,
When I walked forth upon the glittering grass,
And wept, I knew not why; until there rose
From the near schoolroom, voices that, alas! _25
Were but one echo from a world of woes–
The harsh and grating strife of tyrants and of foes.

And then I clasped my hands and looked around–
–But none was near to mock my streaming eyes,
Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground– _30
So without shame I spake:–‘I will be wise,
And just, and free, and mild, if in me lies
Such power, for I grow weary to behold
The selfish and the strong still tyrannise
Without reproach or check.’ I then controlled _35
My tears, my heart grew calm, and I was meek and bold.

And from that hour did I with earnest thought
Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore;
Yet nothing that my tyrants knew or taught
I cared to learn, but from that secret store _40
Wrought linked armour for my soul, before
It might walk forth to war among mankind;
Thus power and hope were strengthened more and more
Within me, till there came upon my mind
A sense of loneliness, a thirst with which I pined. _45

Alas, that love should be a blight and snare
To those who seek all sympathies in one!–
Such once I sought in vain; then black despair,
The shadow of a starless night, was thrown
Over the world in which I moved alone:– _50
Yet never found I one not false to me,
Hard hearts, and cold, like weights of icy stone
Which crushed and withered mine, that could not be
Aught but a lifeless clod, until revived by thee.

Thou Friend, whose presence on my wintry heart _55
Fell, like bright Spring upon some herbless plain;
How beautiful and calm and free thou wert
In thy young wisdom, when the mortal chain
Of Custom thou didst burst and rend in twain,
And walked as free as light the clouds among, _60
Which many an envious slave then breathed in vain
From his dim dungeon, and my spirit sprung
To meet thee from the woes which had begirt it long!

No more alone through the world’s wilderness,
Although I trod the paths of high intent, _65
I journeyed now: no more companionless,
Where solitude is like despair, I went.–
There is the wisdom of a stern content
When Poverty can blight the just and good,
When Infamy dares mock the innocent, _70
And cherished friends turn with the multitude
To trample: this was ours, and we unshaken stood!

Now has descended a serener hour,
And with inconstant fortune, friends return;
Though suffering leaves the knowledge and the power _75
Which says:–Let scorn be not repaid with scorn.
And from thy side two gentle babes are born
To fill our home with smiles, and thus are we
Most fortunate beneath life’s beaming morn;
And these delights, and thou, have been to me _80
The parents of the Song I consecrate to thee.

Is it that now my inexperienced fingers
But strike the prelude of a loftier strain?
Or, must the lyre on which my spirit lingers
Soon pause in silence, ne’er to sound again, _85
Though it might shake the Anarch Custom’s reign,
And charm the minds of men to Truth’s own sway
Holier than was Amphion’s? I would fain
Reply in hope–but I am worn away,
And Death and Love are yet contending for their prey. _90

And what art thou? I know, but dare not speak:
Time may interpret to his silent years.
Yet in the paleness of thy thoughtful cheek,
And in the light thine ample forehead wears,
And in thy sweetest smiles, and in thy tears, _95
And in thy gentle speech, a prophecy
Is whispered, to subdue my fondest fears:
And through thine eyes, even in thy soul I see
A lamp of vestal fire burning internally.

They say that thou wert lovely from thy birth, _100
Of glorious parents thou aspiring Child.
I wonder not–for One then left this earth
Whose life was like a setting planet mild,
Which clothed thee in the radiance undefiled
Of its departing glory; still her fame _105
Shines on thee, through the tempests dark and wild
Which shake these latter days; and thou canst claim
The shelter, from thy Sire, of an immortal name.

One voice came forth from many a mighty spirit,
Which was the echo of three thousand years; _110
And the tumultuous world stood mute to hear it,
As some lone man who in a desert hears
The music of his home:–unwonted fears
Fell on the pale oppressors of our race,
And Faith, and Custom, and low-thoughted cares, _115
Like thunder-stricken dragons, for a space
Left the torn human heart, their food and dwelling-place.

Truth’s deathless voice pauses among mankind!
If there must be no response to my cry–
If men must rise and stamp with fury blind _120
On his pure name who loves them,–thou and I,
Sweet friend! can look from our tranquillity
Like lamps into the world’s tempestuous night,–
Two tranquil stars, while clouds are passing by
Which wrap them from the foundering seaman’s sight, _125
That burn from year to year with unextinguished light.


There was a youth, who, as with toil and travel,
Had grown quite weak and gray before his time;
Nor any could the restless griefs unravel

Which burned within him, withering up his prime
And goading him, like fiends, from land to land.                     
Not his the load of any secret crime,

For nought of ill his heart could understand,
But pity and wild sorrow for the same;--
Not his the thirst for glory or command,

Baffled with blast of hope-consuming shame;                          
Nor evil joys which fire the vulgar breast,
And quench in speedy smoke its feeble flame,

Had left within his soul their dark unrest:
Nor what religion fables of the grave
Feared he,--Philosophy's accepted guest.                             

For none than he a purer heart could have,
Or that loved good more for itself alone;
Of nought in heaven or earth was he the slave.

What sorrow, strange, and shadowy, and unknown,
Sent him, a hopeless wanderer, through mankind?--                    
If with a human sadness he did groan,

He had a gentle yet aspiring mind;
Just, innocent, with varied learning fed;
And such a glorious consolation find

In others' joy, when all their own is dead:                          
He loved, and laboured for his kind in grief,
And yet, unlike all others, it is said

That from such toil he never found relief.
Although a child of fortune and of power,
Of an ancestral name the orphan chief,                               

His soul had wedded Wisdom, and her dower
Is love and justice, clothed in which he sate
Apart from men, as in a lonely tower,

Pitying the tumult of their dark estate.--
Yet even in youth did he not e'er abuse                              
The strength of wealth or thought, to consecrate

Those false opinions which the harsh rich use
To blind the world they famish for their pride;
Nor did he hold from any man his dues,

But, like a steward in honest dealings tried,                        
With those who toiled and wept, the poor and wise,
His riches and his cares he did divide.

Fearless he was, and scorning all disguise,
What he dared do or think, though men might start,
He spoke with mild yet unaverted eyes;                               

Liberal he was of soul, and frank of heart,
And to his many friends--all loved him well--
Whate'er he knew or felt he would impart,

If words he found those inmost thoughts to tell;
If not, he smiled or wept; and his weak foes                         
He neither spurned nor hated--though with fell

And mortal hate their thousand voices rose,
They passed like aimless arrows from his ear--
Nor did his heart or mind its portal close

To those, or them, or any, whom life's sphere                        
May comprehend within its wide array.
What sadness made that vernal spirit sere?--

He knew not. Though his life, day after day,
Was failing like an unreplenished stream,
Though in his eyes a cloud and burthen lay,                          

Through which his soul, like Vesper's serene beam
Piercing the chasms of ever rising clouds,
Shone, softly burning; though his lips did seem

Like reeds which quiver in impetuous floods;
And through his sleep, and o'er each waking hour,                    
Thoughts after thoughts, unresting multitudes,

Were driven within him by some secret power,
Which bade them blaze, and live, and roll afar,
Like lights and sounds, from haunted tower to tower

O'er castled mountains borne, when tempest's war                     
Is levied by the night-contending winds,
And the pale dalesmen watch with eager ear;--

Though such were in his spirit, as the fiends
Which wake and feed an everliving woe,--
What was this grief, which ne'er in other minds                      

A mirror found,--he knew not--none could know;
But on whoe'er might question him he turned
The light of his frank eyes, as if to show

He knew not of the grief within that burned,
But asked forbearance with a mournful look;                          
Or spoke in words from which none ever learned

The cause of his disquietude; or shook
With spasms of silent passion; or turned pale:
So that his friends soon rarely undertook

To stir his secret pain without avail;--                             
For all who knew and loved him then perceived
That there was drawn an adamantine veil

Between his heart and mind,--both unrelieved
Wrought in his brain and bosom separate strife.
Some said that he was mad, others believed                           

That memories of an antenatal life
Made this, where now he dwelt, a penal hell;
And others said that such mysterious grief

From God's displeasure, like a darkness, fell
On souls like his, which owned no higher law                         
Than love; love calm, steadfast, invincible

By mortal fear or supernatural awe;
And others,--''Tis the shadow of a dream
Which the veiled eye of Memory never saw,

'But through the soul's abyss, like some dark stream                 
Through shattered mines and caverns underground,
Rolls, shaking its foundations; and no beam

'Of joy may rise, but it is quenched and drowned
In the dim whirlpools of this dream obscure;
Soon its exhausted waters will have found                            

'A lair of rest beneath thy spirit pure,
O Athanase!--in one so good and great,
Evil or tumult cannot long endure.

So spake they: idly of another's state
Babbling vain words and fond philosophy;                             
This was their consolation; such debate

Men held with one another; nor did he,
Like one who labours with a human woe,
Decline this talk: as if its theme might be

Another, not himself, he to and fro                                  
Questioned and canvassed it with subtlest wit;
And none but those who loved him best could know

That which he knew not, how it galled and bit
His weary mind, this converse vain and cold;
For like an eyeless nightmare grief did sit                          

Upon his being; a snake which fold by fold
Pressed out the life of life, a clinging fiend
Which clenched him if he stirred with deadlier hold;--
And so his grief remained--let it remain--untold. [1]