Poetry: Death of Shelley

Louis Edouard Fournier, The Funeral of Shelley (1889)

Percy Byshe Shelley did not know how to swim. When clouds began to gather over the Gulf of Spezzia, Shelley, on board his boat, reportedly refused the advice of Italian fishermen to return to shore. From The London Literary Gazette, August 24, 1824:

Followers romanticized Shelley's tragic death. Here The Gazette responds disparagingly to a memorial poem, "Elegy on the Death of Percy Bysshe Shelley" by Arthur Brooke.

This wretched composition on the lamentable and appalling death of Shelley, by a kindred spirit, a believer in the doctrine of Necessity without a Providence, is every way consistent. It is dedicated to "Leigh Hunt, Esq. the companion and admirer of the illustrious deceased—his friend and fellow laborer;" its style is corrupt; its sentiments vapid, unintelligible or wicked; and it's poetical demerits of the most obnoxious character. It sets out by a turgid appeal, in four apostrophes, to, first, the waves, second, the abyss of waters, third, the elemental air, and fourth, the winds,
...whose gentle breath wakes love to bliss,
Or whose wild rage deafens the thunder's roar.
To deafen, according to Dr. Johnson, is to deprive of the power of hearing, and if Mr. Brooke had understood the English language he would not have talked about depriving the thunder's roar of a faculty which it never possessed. To show that we do not carp at mere verbal blunders,we copy, the second stanza entire, as a sample of the other sixteen :—
But is he lost ? and can it be that death
Has quenched that spirit's most ethereal beam? 
Can that most vital thought be held beneath
The sullen deep in unawakening dream? 
Could the blind wave, like any common breath,
Stifle that voice which was a living stream
Of Love and Wisdom, whose melodious flow
Was poured on all that is, around, above, below!
Upon this it may be observed, that the query, "Can a most vital thought be held beneath the deep in unawakening dream," is rank nonsense. There is no thought at all, and assuredly no vital thought, in a drowned corpse; and dreams awakening were never heard of either by land or sea. Then follows the equally foolish query, which compares a Mind wave (who ever saw a seeing one?) to a common breath, and inquires if the said blind wave could stifle a voice which was a living stream! We take no note of the strange current of this stream, which, it appears from the concluding line, ran not only all about on every side, but actually both up and down, "above, below!" Well might the point of admiration be tacked to the description of such a river.

In this manner, linking words together without meaning, and phrases devoid of sense, poor Master Brooke pours his flood of sorrow forth just like his own stream, "on all that is, around, above, below." In his grievous paroxysm he speaks of " impalling clouds which slaves and tyrants mind o'er the bewildered world,"—no wonder! the winding of clouds is enough to bewilder the world: of Shelley's glory being "an essence pure and bright, which time shall not obscure nor breath malignant blight"—blight and obscure an essence! With like rhodomontade his genius is compared in one stanza (the XIVth) to centric sunbeams, which before its close are converted into a ray, a divine one it must be owned, which kindles but to fade

Further to criticize such tomfoolery would be a sad misapplication of our time, and of our reader's patience. If, in treating the theme, we deliver our opinion lightly of Mr. Brooke's performance, it is not because we consider his subject to be a trivial one, or his attempt a slight offense; but simply because the talents he has brought to the task are unworthy of a graver reproof. It would be a happy thing for the community were drivelers only to espouse the side of immorality and irreligion. Such puny reptiles do but provoke contempt, and can do no injury to the massive social fabric which they assail with their powerless efforts. Mr. Brooke may rant
Of stern Necessity, the One supreme, 
and bid in bad rhyme new champions arise to
Unveil foul Superstition's idiot faith,
And crush the viperous worm that lurks beneath
that mask without doing the least harm. Execrable verse and nonsense are quite innocuous ingredients, and slaver instead of poison is a fortunate substitution of the evil intention for the capacity to do mischief. Such is the nature of this Elegy, written by one of a pernicious school, untouched it should seem by the awful catastrophe which we earnestly hoped would have been received with a different spirit. In a line of prodigious length, he classes himself
"Of those whom loftier thoughts in holiest brotherhood bind;" 
and evokes his fellows to a similar labor on the manes of a proclaimed atheist— 
So shall that epoch which his soul fore-shared 
Roll, hastening, on its irresistible hour, 
And find its path not wholly unprepared, 
And Love be Law, and Gentleness be Power.
Ah, Mr. Brooke, lay not the flattering unction to your soul. Your god Necessity is but a Dagon, and not so irresistible as you fondly imagine. Be warned by the terrible lesson of your leader's fate, and ere another epoch comes, cast a look higher towards an overruling Power directing that
...one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.

#poetry #shelley  #romanticism  #romantic   #byron  #literature  #literarycriticism

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