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"The Cenci" occupies a unique place among the poet's works. In it he descends from his usual wild and imaginative flights to the realities of life. The poem is a dramatic rendering of the legend of Beatrice Cenci, who, under insupportable provocation, killed her monster of a father. The poet himself, who has criticised it freely, says: "It is written without any of the peculiar feelings and opinions which characterize my other compositions; I have attended simply to the impartial development of such characters as it is probable the persons represented really were, together with the greatest degree of popular effect to be produced by such a development." It ranks among the best dramas produced since the death of Shakespeare.
The year 1820, which was spent chiefly at Pisa, saw the production of some of his choicest lyrics. Among these are the "Ode to Naples," the "Ode to Liberty," "To a Skylark," the most popular of his lyrics, and the inimitable "Cloud":
"I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noon-day dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
When rocked to rest on their mother's breast,
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder."
The Letter to Maria Gisborne," in the same key as "Julian and Maddalo," is specially interesting for its characterizations of some of the poet's contemporaries.
Shelley took the poet's art seriously. While he bestowed careful labor on the correction and finish of his original drafts, he emphasized most of all the necessity of special inspiration. In his prose work "Defence of Poetry," written in 1820, he says: "Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say 'I will compose poetry.' The greatest poet even cannot say it, for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet."
The most important of his remaining productions (many worthy of mention must be passed over) are “Epipsychidion," addressed to a beautiful but unfortunate lady in whom Shelley became deeply interested, and "Adonais," a lament over the death of the poet Keats. The latter is an elegy of great beauty, deserving to rank with Milton's "Lycidas" and Tennyson's "In Memoriam." Shelley did not regard death as annihilation, but as a return of the soul to the Spirit of Nature, from which it originally came. Without losing its personal consciousness, the soul thus becomes participant in a broad, divine life, and has its part
in all the glories of the universe. So Shelley sings of his friend and brother poet:
"He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
The last dwelling-place of Shelley was on the Gulf of Spezia, whither he removed in April, 1822. He was now surrounded by congenial friends, and life seemed opening to him with fairer prospects. He felt a tranquillity of spirit, to which he had hitherto been a stranger. "I am content," he wrote, "if the heaven above me is calm for the passing moment." Under these favorable conditions, he began a lengthy poem, "The Triumph of Life," which was conceived on the lofty plane of his masterpieces. But the end was near. He was passionately fond of boating. He owned a schooner, in which he had gone to Leghorn to meet his friend, Leigh Hunt. On his return, July 8, 1822, he encountered a sudden squall, the boat was capsized, and he, with two companions, was drowned. His body was found a few days later, and, after the ancient Greek fashion, was cremated on the shore near Via Reggio. The poet's ashes were collected and buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome.
Shelley is, perhaps, the most poetical of our poets. has not the philosophic quality of Wordsworth, nor the
versatile power of Byron; but in sustained loftiness and sweep of imagination he surpasses both his great contemporaries. He can never be a popular poet. He dwells habitually in an imaginative realm beyond the popular taste and the popular capacity. No other poet seems to have the rapture of inspiration in a fuller degree. To some extent he was as the voice of one crying in the wilderness. He not only pointed out many of the evils of social life, but with steadfast faith prophesied a happier era. The principles that inspired much of his poetry, separated indeed from his extravagance, have since met with wide acceptance.
As a practical reformer, Shelley's life must be regarded as a failure. While his aims were essentially pure and noble, his ignorance of the world betrayed him into fatal mistakes. His ardor outstripped discretion; and he sought to do in a brief space what can be accomplished only in the slow evolution of centuries. His unbalanced enthusiasm betrayed him into extravagances; and thus, while seeking unselfishly to improve the state of society, he advocated radical doctrines, which in practice would have increased tenfold the evils they were intended to