*Condensed from The Theosophist, April 1881.
In the beginning of the 19th century one Englishman electrified all Europe by his vigorous denunciation of Christianity and the variety of moral leprosy which that system of religion had introduced into the civil fabric of humanity. Grandson of a baronet, heir to a large fortune, yet he chose to throw away all the solid advantages of rank and wealth, and raised the bold standard of revolt. Declaring war against priests and potentates, by word and deed he preached and waged a crusade against religion. All orthodox Christians were horrified — even infidels believed he was going a little too far. Ecclesiastical and legal anathemas were showered on his head. He was avoided like a leper in the streets. His children were snatched away from him by an edict from the Lord Chancellor. But all that human malice could do failed to tame or break his spirit. The man who created such a furor in Europe, who had been cursed by the clergy and had his civil rights forfeited to law, is now recognized as among the first of poets. This man was Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The secret of Shelley's success lies in the fact that he sang under the influence of intuition and inspiration, and thus was always nearer the truth than those who seek to gratify the same ardent longing by something outside themselves and by laborious study. It is an old saying that if what you seek is not within you it will never be found without you. This truth was eminently verified in the case of Shelley. From his own intuitional perceptions he concluded that the first step to bring about the "millennium" — the golden age — was universal love and brotherhood. Indeed, his philosophy — and he was a philosopher with a system — was based on Love. But his Love was not the selfish and narrow passion for one object or individual or community. It knew no limits; it embraced all mankind. In that magnificent poem — Epipsychidion — he says in the genuine platonic spirit:
. . . Narrow
The heart that loves, the brain that contemplates,
The life that wears, the spirit that creates
One object, and one form, and builds thereby
A sepulchre for its eternity!
But he went still further. One of his poems opens with this splendid line:
Earth, Ocean, Air, beloved brotherhood!
And then he goes on to say how this brotherhood has inspired him with a natural piety, and in language which would fill the heart of a Buddhist with joy, he entreats the brotherhood:
If no bright bird, insect, or gentle beast
I consciously have injured, but still loved
And cherished these my kindred; then forgive
This boast, beloved brethren, and withdraw
No portion of your wonted favour now!
Mark the use of the word "boast" in this remarkable passage, and the humility that runs through the lines. One might fancy Buddha using the same language in his self-communions. The same humble and tender spirit that runs through the philosophy of the great Indian prince and yogi pervades the poetry of Shelley. God is universal and fills the universe with love and worship. The spirit of God, therefore, pervades all that is. It must be the knowledge of this fact that gave birth to that grand precept "Thou shalt not kill." Shelley reasons in the same manner. His heart beats with boundless compassion for mankind and, indeed, all living things, as we have seen. He pleads for a worm: —
The spirit of the worm beneath the sod
In love and worship blends itself with God.
Shelley is popularly known as an atheist, but this error cannot be corrected too often. It is true that in Queen Mab he says that "there is no God!" But he immediately adds in a footnote: "This negation must be understood solely to affect a creative deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken." And in connection with this spirit, he exclaims in his beautiful elegy on the death of Keats, Adonais:
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven's light for ever shines, Earth's shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.
The origin of a Personal God he explains in a characteristic and intelligent manner in his Revolt of Islam:
What is that Power? Some moon-struck sophist stood,
Watching the shade from his own soul upthrown
Fill heaven and darken Earth, and in such mood
The Form he saw and worshipped was his own,
His likeness in the world's vast mirror shown;
And 't were an innocent dream, but that a faith
Nursed by fear's dew of poison grows thereon,
And that men say that Power has chosen Death
On all who scorn its laws to wreak immortal wrath.
In thus demolishing a Personal God, Shelley wages a determined war against all who believe in such a Being. The priests come most often under his lash; for them he has no mercy. All crimes are traced to their influence. It is they who have invented the Personal God, and it is their interest to keep up the belief in the masses, on whose wealth and life and happiness they prey. All crime and all misery, I am compelled to say with Shelley, may be traced to the Personal God and his priests. The Hindus and Parsees, in spite of the distinctly pantheistic teachings of the Vedas and the Avesta, cling to and cherish such a God. Once resolve to have nothing to do with the tribal bugbear of a Personal God, and what Shelley predicts might come to pass:
The loathesome mask has fallen, the man remains
Scepterless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself; just, gentle, wise; but man.
Shelley was a pantheist, and like the pantheism of the Vedas and Avesta, his was poured out in noble hymns addressed to the sun, moon, stars, the winds, ocean, and air, and all that symbolizes the grandeur or serene majesty of the Universal Spirit. His worship for all that is beautiful in the wide world amounted to idolatry. Like the Greek priestess in the temple of Apollo, from worship he often passed into trance; and while in that state of samadhi, the wonders which he saw in his visions left him pale with astonishment. Some of these visions he has wreathed into poetry, but the world — "The wide, grey, lampless, deep, unpeopled world"— hated that gentle soul, laughed at his visions, and called him mad; and, therefore, he resolved that these visions, "The cold world shall not know."
Shelley was also a profound believer in the great philosophical doctrine of double existence — the doctrine that every object has its exact counterpart. He has carried the philosophy even further. He believed that history survives in a sort of phantasmal world, and speaks when evoked by the human spirit. This theory he has embodied in two of his poems. In Queen Mab the spirit of the heroine is separated from the body, while the latter continues to fulfil its functions. The disembodied spirit then wanders in the world without any hindrance from time and space, and gathers knowledge from "forbidden lore." In yet another poem allusion is made to Zoroaster, which explains the belief of modern Parsees that their prophet often held high talk with angels and with God. In Prometheus Unbound, the Earth thus speaks:
. . . Ere Babylon was dust,
The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image
Walking in the garden.
That apparition, sole of men, he saw.
That is to say, Zoroaster often saw what we nowadays call his double. The Indian yogis have been known to project their double to the most distant parts of the world. Zoroaster was not the "sole of men" who saw his apparition. Shelley himself, after having passed into one of his trances, was confronted by his spectre, who addressed to him these ominous words, Siete soddisfatto — "Are you satisfied?" — and vanished!
Like Vedantists and Buddhists, Shelley had perfect faith in the doctrine of evolution; and like them he had come independently to construct the theory of cycles. The latter saps the very foundation of Christianity. But Shelley was no Christian; and he loved truth too passionately to discard it in order to leave his religious beliefs unshaken. He was an ardent student of nature, and she delivered to him many an oracle, which she commanded him fearlessly and truthfully to convey to the minds of men. In the Ode to the West Wind, he thus expresses his passionate desire to instruct mankind:
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
"The idea of this poem is that nature moves in cycles, each of which prepares for those which follow; that the wind which strips the leaves from the trees, sows the seeds of future forests; and that winter is the harbinger of spring." This is but a cardinal instance of the manner in which he dwells upon the analogies between the world of sense and the world of spirit, until the veil which parts them seems to be half-lifted.
If we go a step further, we find that Shelley has again independently worked out the theory of the omnipotence of the human will — that grand secret of the godlike power of the Indian yogis. It is true that German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte had at about the same time published the same views in his Doctrine of Science. But Fichte went no further than to suggest the indefinite prolongation of physical life by the exertion of willpower. Shelley, on the other hand, cared nothing for this kind of immortality. His hopes were fixed on death: "Die, / If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek! / Follow where all is fled!" And he was right. The yogis, doubtless, possess the power of prolonging their earthly life indefinitely, but they do not choose to do so. They, too, like Shelley consider life as a necessary evil and do not wish to prolong it. Shelley, unlike Fichte, would have a nobler use made of willpower:
He has entroned the oppression and the oppressor!
e who taught man to vanquish whatsoever
Can be between the cradle and the grave
Crown'd him the King of Life.
He comprehends at a glance the situation of the yogis, without having ever heard of them. What a wail of despair is in the lines which follow:
O, vain endeavour,
If on his own high will, a willing slave,
He has enthroned the oppression and the oppressor!
A student of his works, Mr. Todhunter, has this note on the above passage: "If this will be depraved; if life can breed new wants, and wealth can rend from those who toil and groan a thousandfold for one of the gifts of liberty and nature; then what boots it that man's wealth be inexhaustible, and man's power, which lies dormant in his thought, be unlimited?"
I could adduce many more passages in proof that Shelley was greatly ahead of his contemporaries in the solution of the great problems of life and death. He has been often compared to the old Greek philosophers and called the great disciple of Plato, but to my mind, he was a great Vedantic or Buddhistic thinker, though he had had no access to the Vedas and Dhammapada. One cannot help regretting that a life so noble, so disinterested, so aspiring to the highest arcane of spiritual science, should have been cut off at the early age of twenty-nine.
But even in the course of the few years allotted to him, he did more than a dozen pretentious names did after him during half a century. He did not limit the vast energies of his soul to the investigation of only a protoplasm, but of the permanent interests of suffering humanity. In the words of W. M. Rossetti:
There is no poet — and no man either — in whose behalf it is more befitting for all natures, and for some natures more inevitable, to feel the privileges and the delights of enthusiasm. The very soul rushes out towards Shelley as an unapproached poet, and embraces him as a dearest friend.
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)
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