In any selection that may be made from the prose works of Shelley with the object of illustrating the development of his thought, a marked inequality will be found in the value, literary and intellectual, of the essays included in the book; thus, in the case of the present volume, the first thing that will strike the reader’s notice is the disparity between such a juvenile effort as “The Necessity of Atheism” and so finished and stately a piece of writing as “A Defence of Poetry.” A few years, in a life such as Shelley’s, represent a great advance.

One feature, however, all the prose essays have in common; they are valuable as throwing light, as furnishing an authentic commentary, on the meaning of the poems. For Shelley’s poetry—whatever opinion, real or pretended, Matthew Arnold may have expressed to the contrary—is of much more importance than his prose, as being the supreme vehicle of his thought; and it is certain that not only the beauty of his verse, but the significance of the message embodied in it, will be more fully realised as time goes on. For this reason the prose writings also will be studied with increasing attention; because they supply a means of correcting the many misunderstandings which almost inevitably arise in regard to the meaning of a great revolutionary poet who presents his novel and unpopular ideas in an idealistic form.

In Shelley’s case, these misunderstandings—to give an example—have often delayed a full acceptance of his greatness by attributing to him certain fanciful and grotesque beliefs, with the result that his divergence from the orthodox creed, whether in religion or in ethics, has been sometimes exaggerated, sometimes understated, according to the whim of the critics, who, by misapprehending the poetry and ignoring the prose, have succeeded in transforming the real Shelley into the imaginary one—the “beautiful and ineffectual angel” of Arnold’s epigram. Thus, if due attention had been paid to Shelley’s essays, there could never have arisen the fiction, gravely repeated by writer after writer: that he firmly believed kings and priests to be the cause of slavery and superstition; for a reading of the “Essay on Christianity,” and of other prose works, would at once have made it clear that rulers, whether temporal or spiritual, are anathematised in Shelley’s writings not on any supposition of their personal wickedness, but as being the representatives of civil and religious oppression. Precisely the same may be said of the assumption that Shelley believed literally in a past “Golden Age,” from which Man had unhappily fallen; and of various similar misconceptions for which not the poet himself, but the blind prejudice against the poet, was to blame.

As a brief summary of Shelley’s attitude toward the Christian religion, I may be allowed to quote from what I have written elsewhere.1

“I regard Shelley’s early ‘atheism’ and later ‘pantheism’ as simply the negative and the affirmative side of the same progressive but harmonious life-creed. In his earlier years his disposition was towards a vehement denial of a theology which he never ceased to detest; in his maturer years he made more frequent reference to the great World Spirit in whom he had from the first believed. He grew wiser in the exercise of his religious faith, but the faith was the same throughout; there was progression, but no essential change.”

The sequence of his thought on the subject may be clearly traced in several of the essays included in this book. In “The Necessity of Atheism,” the tract which led to his expulsion from Oxford University, we see Shelley in his youthful mood of open denial and defiance. It has been suggested that the pamphlet was originally intended by its author to be a hoax; but such an explanation entirely misapprehends not only the facts of the case, but the character of Shelley himself. This was long ago pointed out by De Quincey: “He affronted the armies of Christendom. Had it been possible for him to be jesting, it would not have been noble; but here, even in the most monstrous of his undertakings—here, as always, he was perfectly sincere and single-minded.” That this is true may be seen not only from the internal evidence of “The Necessity” itself, but from the fact that the conclusion which Shelley meant to be drawn from the dialogue “A Refutation of Deism,” published in 1814, was that there is no middle course between accepting revealed religion and disbelieving in the existence of a deity—another way of stating the necessity of atheism.

  By PanEris using Melati.

  Back Home Email this Search Discuss Bookmark Next chapter/page
Copyright: All texts on Bibliomania are © Ltd, and may not be reproduced in any form without our written permission. See our FAQ for more details.