The Poet's Religion
In Shelley we clearly see the growth of his religion through periods of vagueness and doubt, struggle and searching. But he did at length come to a positive utterance of his faith, though he died young. Its final expression is in his 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty'. By the title of the poem the poet evidently means a beauty that is not merely a passive quality of particular things, but a spirit that manifests itself through the apparent antagonism of the unintellectual life. This hymn rang out of his heart when he came to the end of his
pilgrimage and stood face to face with the Divinity, glimpses of which had already filled his soul with restlessness. All his experiences of beauty had ever teased him with the question as to what was its truth. Some-where he sings of a nosegay which he makes of violets, daisies, tender bluebells and -
That tall flower that wets,
Like a child , half in tenderness and mirth,
Its mother's face with heaven-collected tears.
He ends by saying:
And then, elate and gay,
I hastened to the spot whence I had come,
That I might there present it! - Oh! to whom?
This question, even though not answered, carries a significance. A creation of beauty suggests a fulfilment, which is the fulfilment of love. We have heard some poets scoff at it in bitterness and despair; but it is like a sick child beating its own mother - it is a sickness of faith, which hurts truth, but proves it by its very pain and anger. And the faith itself is this, that beauty is the self-offering of the One of the other One.
In the first part of his 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' Shelley dwells on the inconstancy and evanescence of the manifestation of beauty, which imparts to it an appearance of frailty and unreality:
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
Like memory of music fled.
This, he says, rouses in our mind the question:
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
Why fear and dream and death and birth
Cast on the daylight of this earth
Such gloom, - why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?
The poet's own answer to this question is:
Man were immortal, and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
This very elusiveness of beauty suggests the vision of immortality and of omnipotence, and stimulates the effort in man to realize it in some idea of permanence. The highest reality has actively to be achieved. The gain of truth is not in the end; it reveals itself through the endless length of achievement. But what is there to guide us in our voyage of realization? Men have ever been struggling for direction:
Therefore the names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven
Remain the records of their vain endeavour,
Frail spells, - whose uttered charm might not avail to sever,
From all we hear and all we see,
Doubt, chance and mutability.
The prevalent rites and practices of piety, according to this poet, are like magic spells - they only prove men's desperate endeavour and not their success. He knows that the end we seek has its own direct call to us, its own light to guide us to itself. And truth's call is the call of beauty. Of this he says:
The light alone, - like mist o'er mountain driven,
Or music by the night wind sent,
Thro' strings of some still instrument,
Or moonlight on a midnight stream
Gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream.
About this revelation of truth which calls us on, and yet which is everywhere, a village singer of Bengal sings:
My master's flute sounds in everything,
drawing me out of my house to everywhere.
While I listen to it I know that every step I take
is in my master's house.
For he is the sea, he is the river that leads to the sea,
and he is the landing place.
Religion, in Shelley, grew with his life; it was not given to him in fixed and ready-made doctrines; he rebelled against them. He had the creative mind which could only approach Truth through its joy in creative effort. For true creation is realization of truth through the translation of it into our own