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PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, AS A PHILOSOPHER AND
A PAPER READ BEFORE THE NEW YORK LIBERAL CLUB,
ON FRIDAY, AUGUST 6TH, 1875.
'Let us see the Truth, whatever that may be."-SHELLEY, 1822.
Mr. Vice-President and Members of the Liberal Club:
"The Blood of the Martyr is the Seed of the Church.' secution ever fails in accomplishing its desired ends, and as a rule lays the foundations broad and deep for the triumph of the objects of and principles inculcated by the persecuted.
Driven from their homes by fanatical tyranny, not permitted to worship as they thought fit, a band of noble and earnest, yet on some points mistaken men, were, a little over two hundred and fifty years ago, landed on this continent from the good ship "Mayflower." The "Pilgrim Fathers" were, in their native land, refused liberty of conscience and freedom of discussion ; their apparent loss was our gain, for if it had not been for that despotism, and the corresponding re-action, which made those stern old zealots give to others many of the inalienable rights of liberty denied to themselves, you and I could not to-night perhaps be allowed to meet face to face, without fear, to discuss metaphysical and social questions in their broadest aspects, without the civil or theological powers intervening to close our mouths.
“Fragile in health and frame; of the purest habits in morals ; full of devoted generosity and universal kindness; glowing with ardor to attain wisdom; resolved at every personal sacrifice to do right; burning with a desire for affection and sympathy,' a boy-under-graduate of Oxford, described as of tall, delicate, and fragile figure, with large and lively eyes, with expressive, beautiful and feminine features, with head covered with long, brown hair, of gracefulness and simplicity of manner, the heir to
a title and the representation of one of the most ancient English families, which numbered Sir Philip Sidney on its roll of illustrious names, just sixty-four years ago, and in this nineteenth century, for no licentiousness, violence, or dishonor, but, for his refusal to criminate himself or inculpate friends, was, without trial, expelled by learned divines from his university for writing an argumentative thesis, which, if it had been the work of some Greek philosopher, would have been hailed by his judges as a fine specimen of profound analytical abstruseness--for that expulsion are we the debtors to theological charity and tolerance for "Queen Mab."
Excommunicated by a mercenary and abject priesthood, cast off by a savage father, the admirer of that gloomy theology founded by the murderer of Michael Servetus, and charged by his jealous brother writers as one of the founders of a Satanic School, for neither immorality of life nor breach of the parental relation, but for heterodoxy to an expiring system of dogmatism, and for acting on and asserting the right of man to think and judge for himself, a father was to have two children torn from him, in the sacred name of law and justice, by the principal adviser of a dying madman, "Defender of the Faith, by Law Established," and by us despised as the self-willed tyrant, who lost America and poured out human blood like water to gratify his lust of power. By that Lord Chancellor whose cold, impassive statue has a place in Westminster Abbey, where Byron's was refused admittance, and whose memory, when that stone has crumbled into dust, will live as one who furnished an example for execrable tyranny over the parental tie, and that Lord Eldon whom an outraged father curses in imperishable
The blood within those veins may be mine own,
"I curse thee, though I hate thee not. O slave!
If thou could'st quench the earth consuming hell
This curse should be a blessing. Fare thee well."
Sad as it is to contemplate any human being in his agony making use of such language to another; and however much we may sympathize with the poet, yet we cannot but have inwardly a feeling of rejoicing; for, if it had not been for this unheard of villainy, we should probably never have had the other magnificent poetry and prose of Percy Bysshe Shelley composed during his self-imposed ostracism, and which furnish such glorious thoughts for the philosopher, and keen trenchant weapons for the reformer.
Have any of my hearers ever stood, in the calm of a summer evening, in Shelley's native land, listening to the lovely warble of the nightingale, making earth joyful with its unpremeditated strains, and the woods re-echo with its melody? Or gazed upwards with anxious ken towards the skylark careering in the "blue ether," far above this sublunary sphere of gross, sensual earth, there straining after immortality, and
"Like a poet hidden,
In the light of thought,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears, it heeded not,"
pouring out such bursts of song as to make one almost worship and credit the fables, taught in childhood at our mothers' knees, of the angelic symphonies of heavenly choirs. Such was the poetry of Shelley; and as the music of the nightingale or the skylark is far exceeding in excellence that of the other members of the feathered kingdom, so does Shelley rank as a poet far above all other poets, making even the poet of nature, the great Wordsworth himself, confess that Shelley was indeed the master of harmonious verse in our modern literature. It is broadly laid down in the Marvinian theory that all poets are insane. I would much like to break a lance with the learned Professor of Psychology and Medical Jurisprudence; but as the overthrow of this dogma does not come within the scope of my essay, I would suggest to those who may have been influenced by that
paper to read Shelley's "Defence of Poetry." I shall quote two extracts therefrom, each pertinent to my subject. The first describes the function of the poet:
"But poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true, that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world, which is called religion.”
The other is in extension of the same idea, and concludes the essay :
“Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
I have no hesitation in saying that for treating Shelley as a philosopher, I shall be attacked with great "positivism" by the disciples* of manufacturers of bran-new Brummagen philosophies dug out of Aristotelian and other depths to which are added new thoughts, not their own. The reason which David Masson offers in his "Recent British Philosophy" for placing Alfred Tennyson among the same class is equally applicable now:
"To those who are too strongly possessed with our common habit of classifying writers into kinds, as historians, poets, scientific and speculative writers, and so on, it may seem strange to include Mr. Tennyson in this list. But as I have advisedly referred to Wordsworth as one of the representatives and powers of British philosophy in the age immediately past, so I advisedly
* If Diogenes or Socrates, leaving High Olympus and sweet converse with the immortals, were to condescend to visit New York some Friday evening, I am sadly afraid they would be astounded at many of their would-be brothers in philosophy. On seeing the travestie of ancient academies and groves where the schools used to congregate, the dialugues consisting of bald atheism under sheep's clothing to trap the unwary, and termed "The Religion of Humanity," of abuse and personality in lieu of argument, of buffoonery called wit, of airing pet hobbies alien to the subject instead of disputating, of shouting vulgar claptrap instead of rhetoric, etc. -I sadly fear these stout old Greeks, having power for the nonce, would, throwing philosophy to the dogs in a moment of paroxysmal indignation, despite physiognomies trained to resemble their own, have these fellows casked up in tubs without lanterns, but with the appropriate " snuffers," fit emblems of their faiths, and dropped far outside Sandy Hook. A proper finale to the vapid utterance made by one of these gentry that all Reformers should be annihilated." Imagine Plato or Epicurus offering such a suggestion. O tempora! O mores!