Essays and Reviews

by Archibald Lampman

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley


 

The Revolt of Islam


 

What a delicate thing to be entrusted to this stern world’s keeping is a poet’s nature, a nature like Shelley’s; gentle yet proud, boldly imaginative, deeply passionate, intensely sensitive, and ever striving to raise itself above the level of the world in its lofty aspirations. How easily it may be spoiled, embittered, and turned away from truth in an unaided struggle with the unsympathetic coldness and heartless oppression of society, and to what a sacred height may it attain, if it be nourished with the pure warmth of faithful friendship, and turned always towards the brighter side of human life. Shelley was destined to see the world only in its gloomiest colours. He was exposed in his extreme youth to the cruelty of school fellows, who knew no sympathy with his proud sensitive heart, and afterwards in college days to the unrelenting persecution of narrow bigotry, and the coldness of natures whose feelings and aspirations were utterly incongenial to his own. Even in after life, when the light of his burning genius had struggled into notice, and cast its scorching rays on the tottering fabric of a system of oppression and cold blind servitude which was soon to die away, he experienced in the strange persecution and malevolent misrepresentation, which continually followed him, the bitter truth of those heartfelt words of his own in Queen Mab:

Ah! to the stranger soul, when first it peeps
From its new tenement, and looks abroad
For happiness and sympathy, how stern
And desolate a tract is this wide world!

Thus it was that in his earlier days he withdrew himself almost entirely from the society of those about him, and gave himself up to that wondrous study of nature, which as the reader learns from every page of his marvellous poetry, has made him one of her peculiar priests. His truly poetical education, he himself in the preface to the Revolt of Islam, describes in the following words: "I have been familiar from boyhood with mountains, and lakes, and the sea, and the solitudes of forests. Danger, which sports upon the brink of precipices, has been my playmate. I have trodden the glaciers of the Alps, and lived under the eye of Mont Blanc. I have been a wanderer among distant fields. I have sailed down mighty rivers, and seen the sun rise and set, and the stars come forth, while I have sailed night and day down a rapid stream among mountains. I have seen populous cities, and have watched the passions which rise and spread, and sink and change, among assembled multitudes. I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages of tyranny and war, cities and villages reduced to scattered groups of black and roofless houses, and the naked inhabitants sitting famished upon their desolate thresholds. I have conversed with living men of genius. The poetry of Ancient Greece and Rome, and Modern Italy, and our own country, has been to me like external nature, a passion and an enjoyment. Such are the sources from which the materials for the imagery of my poem have been drawn."

He was indeed a pure worshipper of nature, and during those long days of his early life which he spent in solitary reading, rambling, and meditation, when his mind turned in weariness from the contemplation of what he had already seen of the deep-rooted evils of the world’s society to a groping search after the truth, the real secret of human hopes and human destiny, he conceived that intense hatred of all existing forms of government, all restraint on the natural impulses of men whom he believed to be by nature good, which found impassioned vent in the wild and immature but beautiful language of Queen Mab.

Do you remember the following lines from the Revolt of Islam?

The spirit whom I loved in solitude
Sustained her child: the tempest-shaken wood,
The waves, the fountains, and the hush of night—
These were his voice, and well I understood
His smile divine, when the calm sea was bright
With silent stars, and heaven was breathless with delight.

How perfectly they express the inspiration, which prompted the poet himself throughout the whole course of his life, and dictated every line of his more than poetical writings. He had drunk deeply too at the fountain of historic lore, and its too often bitter draughts had made deep impressions on his sympathetic soul, which the sight of the human suffering and degrading tyranny of his own day served to render deeper and more indelible. He might say of himself as Laon did in the Revolt of Islam:

I heard, as all have heard, life’s various story,
And in no careless heart transcribed the tale;
But, from the sneers of men who had grown hoary
In shame and scorn, from groans of crowds made pale
By famine, from a mother’s desolate wail
O’er her polluted child, from innocent blood
Poured on the earth, and brows anxious and pale
With the heart’s warfare: did I gather food
To feed my thoughts—a tameless multitude.

The stories of the persecutions and oppression sanctioned by the church in ages past, the coldness and falsehood which disgraced so many of the servants of Christianity, even in his own time, and the seeming harshness of some of the Christian doctrines, caused his sensitive untutored soul by a strange perversion of understanding, to turn away from the faith itself, and for much the same reasons from every other existing form of religion, and seek for some natural code of faith, which might to his mind conform more closely to the workings of his only instructress[,] nature’s self. Thus it is that such a large portion of his poetry, especially in Queen Mab, is closed to the Christian’s ear by reason of the atheistic opinions and daring blasphemy which mar its wonderful power and beauty. Yet, if we set aside the blasphemous infidelity contained in it, and turn our regard only to its main import, we cannot but feel that it was indeed a magnificent poet’s dream that vision of a heaven on earth in a future time when all men whose natures he believed to be originally pure and good, should be liberated from all government, and from the evil influences of a system of life which corrupted them from their birth, and made as free as the winds of heaven to follow the instincts of natural goodness and virtue which should gradually lead them to perfection, to pure, glorious, unselfish happiness, without the further aid of laws and systems of morals. It should be such an age as he describes in the following lines:

Mild was the slow necessity of death;
The tranquil spirit failed beneath its grasp,
Without a groan, almost without fear,
Calm as a voyager to some distant land,
And full of wonder, full of hope, as he[.]
The deadly germs of languor and disease
Died in the human frame, and purity
Blessed with all gifts his earthly worshippers.

Shelley was one of the few who still clung firmly to hope after the cause of liberty had been apparently crushed in France. The French revolution, the first strike for freedom in his own age, had passed away in a wild scene of reckless extravagance and awful [c]rime. The chains of despotism once more enthralled the land, apparently riveted forever in the downfall and despair of the friends of liberty. Men in despondency gave up the cause, and regarded earth as hopelessly consigned to the fetters of oppression.

It was to counteract this feeling, and keep alive the hopes of those who not long before had risked life and liberty in the struggle, that he wrote the Revolt of Islam, which is by far the most important, though not the most perfect of his works.

In spite of many defects—and does the eagle-eye of the critic ever fail to find these in any mortal production—the reader of the Revolt of Islam is less than human if he is not charmed with the wonderful music of the poet’s versification, displayed perhaps to best advantage in the Spencerian [sic] Stanza, "a measure inexpressibly beautiful," as Shelley himself says, and he cannot but be astonished and enraptured at the glorious imagery, which in its marvelous yet easy profusion, brings up before him some sublime picture in every line. He is carried away with the poet’s lofty hatred and scorn of oppression, flowing into majestic utterance in those fearful pictures of human misery which abound in the poem, bursting upon our ears like the voice of the storm; and above all must he be impressed with the glowing language in which he speaks of the future age of perfect freedom for mankind in a strain of solemn enthusiasm, like the inspired outburst of a prophet’s overflowing heart[.]

Surely the English language contains but little poetry more beautiful than Shelley’s description of Cythna, and the parting between her and Loan [sic], in the Second Canto of the Revolt of Islam. Through these passages there runs a spirit of intense and etherial sweetness, such as Shelley only could have conceived and framed in words so exquis[i]tely musical and wonderfully picturesque. And what terrible descriptions are those of Laon’s imprisonment in the Third Canto, the return of the tyrants to the Golden city, the panic, the final desperate struggle of Laon’s faithful band, and his glorious rescue by Cythna. His own tender nature guides the pen when he describes how Laon rescued the father tyrant from the angry multitude; how he softened their hearts with words of deepest pity, and in spite of all the despot’s cruelty and selfishness, uttered these sublime words in his behalf:

Oh! wherefore should ill ever flow from ill,
And pain still keener pain forever breed?
We all are brethren—even the slaves who kill
For hire are men; and to avenge misdeed
On the misdoer, doth but misery feed
With her own broken heart! Oh earth, Oh heaven!
And thou, dread nature, which to every deed
And all that lives, or is to be, hath given,
Even as to thee have these done ill, and are forgiven.

Wonderfully beautiful is the strange tale of Cythna’s imprisonment in the subterranean sea cave, her madness and final rescue by the female slave ship, whose crew she prevailed upon to turn to the cause of liberty and release their wretched cargo. And the frightful story of the slaughter, the famine, and the plague in the Golden city, the desperate prayer of every nation to its God, the exhortation of the Iberian priest, and the horrible preparation for Laon’s execution, is told in words of awful power and ghastly vividness. Finally, in the last Canto is the description of the death of Laon and Cythna, their awakening in Paradise and discovery of the beautiful child that had come like a dream to Cythna during her imprisonment in the cave, and had been found by Laon dancing before the tyrant in the Golden city.

What first strikes the reader of Shelley, and fills him with wonder, is the extraordinary profusion, variety, and splendor of his imagery. There is wealth enough in half a dozen of his stanzas to adorn splendidly a whole ordinary poem. An unpoetical reader is dazzled and bewildered by it, and a careless one throws the book aside and pronounces it obscure and unreadable. But the student and admirer of Shelley, turns the pages of his favorite author at random, and is continually enchanted by the marvellous succession of magnificent pictures which every stanza opens before his eyes; an imagery, bold, grand, and profuse, but never strained, never out of place. For instance, what an exquisite description is that of Cythna, in the Second Canto of the Revolt of Islam:

She moved upon this earth a shape of brightness,
A power, that from its objects scarcely drew
One impulse of her being—in her lightness
Most like some radiant cloud of morning dew,
Which wanders through the waste air’s pathless blue,
To nourish some far desert; she did seem
Beside me, gathering beauty as she grew,
Like the bright shade of some immortal dream
Which walks, when tempest sleeps, the wave of life’s dark stream.

And another one in the Fifth Canto, where he says she was—

A form most like the imagined habitant
Of silver exhalations sprung from dawn,
By winds which feed on sun rise woven, to enchant
The faiths of men.

From his smaller poems may be taken some of the most characteristic specimens of his genius. Did you ever, reader, meet with anything more exquisitely beautiful than the following lines from "The Sensitive Plant", where after describing the garden and its plants, he says:

And when evening descended from heaven above,
And the earth was all rest, and the air was all love
And delight, though less bright, was far more deep,
And the day’s veil fell from the world of sleep,

And the beasts and the birds and insects were drowned
In an ocean of dreams without a sound;
Whose waves never mark, though they ever impress
The light sand which paves it, consciousness:

The sensitive plant was the earliest
Up-gathered into the bosom of rest;
The sweet child weary of its delight,
The feeblest and yet the favorite,
Cradled within the embrace of night.

Though Shelley’s genius is now fully acknowledged, and much has been written of late years about him and his works, yet he is not as generally read as his writings deserve; however, he has been called the poet of the future, and the more liberal men grow, the more will his poetry be received and admired.