The sublime is central to Shelley, and Shelley’s relationship to the sublime makes him central to modern poetry, as no other poet, not even Wordsworth, who towers over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, can be. The fact that Shelley, since Hazlitt’s early reviews, has prompted disagreements both within the greatest individual critics, and between those same critics, testifies to his centrality no less than the impact he made on the subsequent generations, from Tennyson and Browning to Hardy. Even for those of us who do not enjoy reading Shelley as much as they enjoy Keats or Wordsworth or Byron, there is no denying that he points towards something that is found nowhere else: an extreme of sublimity that embraces it, not as a consequence of Burke’s obscurity, but as a consequence of light, albeit with the variations and attendant shades by which it is known. Starkly and reductively, in the sublime we meet two converging tendencies: for the world’s various entities to dissolve into light and for light to assume a solid, even concrete, presence even as it is diffused over and across the worlds parts. Not because of his relationship to dark, but because of his capacity to write about light, with dimensions and solidness, is Milton the exemplar of the sublime in English poetry; as Virgil, in Paradiso especially, is the exemplar of the sublime in European poetry. Shelley does something more radical than either in the sense that he sacrifices, though it is not apparent how conscious or justified the sacrifice might be, one half of the sublime: in Shelley’s great poetry, the dissolution into light is dominant, at the cost of the concrete, felt presence of light as a transcendent absorbing substance.
Shelley’s best late twentieth-century critic, William Keach, demonstrates the extent and variety of dissolution; but the reading that Kenneth Haynes offers of Shelley’s Prometheus is persuasive in its reminder that no repetition of the word “white” can sustain his “Platonic thrust” towards unification—though more than the Platonic thrust, it is the immediacy of light apprehended as a pressure and distinct form, that is often left behind by Shelley’s verse. That is what Donald Davie means when he writes that in affecting the sublime, Shelley cuts the hawsers that bind him to the solidity of the world; and that is why Donald Davie’s admiration for “The Sensitive Plant” is counter to the general appreciation of Shelley’s verse: it is not owing to the urbane diction, but to its earthy grit, which Davie finds reconciled with Shelley’s natural tendency to fly (echoing Arnold’s dismissal that was also perhaps a nod to Shelley’s paradisiac urgings) upward.
When T.S. Eliot opposed Shelley to Dryden he was not only be provocative: the opposition is itself illuminating for establishing the source of either poet’s strength. Dryden is so predominantly a poet of hearty substantial and sensory reality—his translation of Lucretius is erotic on these grounds, very differently from Shelley’s eroticism—that his sublime effects are tilted in the opposite direction, with too much clod and not enough light. C.S. Lewis’ defense of Shelley against Eliot’s charge appreciates, and over-values, just that aspect of Shelley’s sublime, sustained in Prometheus, that Dryden is lacking, though Lewis makes instead the point that Shelley could manage the Classical modes and genres with greater commitment and discipline than Dryden ever could; but Lewis neglects to address the poem that is the crux of Eliot’s case, Dryden’s “To the Memory of Mr Oldham,” purely Virgilian for its gliding along the rails of Virgil’s Nisus and Euryalus episode, as Virgil glides along the rails of Homer, so that we are always aware of the supporting structure, the doubleness of the poem. Nonetheless, one response might be to note that when Dryden writes “wit will shine,” he is not only alluding to the glimpse of light off the helmet that Euryalus has plundered, but recognizing how circumscribed his own attention to light.
The Eliot-Lewis-Davie discussion of Shelley began nearly a century ago, but it is worth reconstructing so long as poetry takes on the challenge of dissolving the solid world into light and of realizing light as a concrete; the challenge might seem aridly inhuman, a science experiment in the guise of a poem, but where it is realized, it is conditioned on, and confined to, particular human experiences, making them transcendent (it is one of Ezra Pound’s central aims to do just this). Shelley takes up the gauntlet, and the depth of his achievement can be measured against some of Tennyson’s light-effects which, dazzling, are not a fully reckoning with light as an object of poetry (“and beat the twilight into shapes of fire”): Tennyson does not establish the relations within and between light, as Shelley does in the second and third sections of “Ode to the West Wind.” It has been pointed out to me that the poem is not professedly–in what it announces of its subject matter–about “light,” but it seems to me quite clear that Shelley is keen on capturing effects that depend on the striking behaviors and properties of light: flashings and sudden illuminations and reflections and distortions.
Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aëry surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull’d by the coil of his crystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh hear!
“Light” is itself not mentioned—and that is the point: that the effect of disjointed, swirling, reflected, fading and blooming parts and relations between parts is dependent upon a light that is not immediate, impinging or even impinged upon. But the poem’s power comes from the sense that there is a medium, not just Shelley’s imagination, that permits the vision to unfold, and that is the pervasive medium of light itself, a light that does not come into focus in itself, on its own terms, but that is nonetheless a limit towards which we feel the poem tending.
In “Mont Blanc,” something similar is effected, where “things” sublimate into a thinness that is less liquid, or even vaporous, than incandescent. Once again, light is a limit, and the things themselves are not quite there, though they have also lost their identity as “things,” which is perhaps why I hear that word (“things”) as a painfully discordant clang in the poem’s second section:
Thus thou, Ravine of Arve—dark, deep Ravine—
Thou many-colour’d, many-voiced vale,
Over whose pines, and crags, and caverns sail
Fast cloud-shadows and sunbeams: awful scene,
Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down
From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne,
Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame
Of lightning through the tempest;—thou dost lie,
Thy giant brood of pines around thee clinging,
Children of elder time, in whose devotion
The chainless winds still come and ever came
To drink their odours, and their mighty swinging
To hear—an old and solemn harmony;
Thine earthly rainbows stretch’d across the sweep
Of the aethereal waterfall, whose veil
Robes some unsculptur’d image; the strange sleep
Which when the voices of the desert fail
Wraps all in its own deep eternity;
Thy caverns echoing to the Arve’s commotion,
A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame;
Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion,
Thou art the path of that unresting sound—
Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around;
One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings
Now float above thy darkness, and now rest
Where that or thou art no unbidden guest,
In the still cave of the witch Poesy,
Seeking among the shadows that pass by
Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee,
Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast
From which they fled recalls them, thou art there!
“With the clear universe of things around” gestures towards a substantiality and concrete particularity that it does not apprehend or bring into being. Of course what is missing from anything I’ve said is the mental aspect of Shelley’s effort: the powers of the imagination that he celebrates and dramatizes. But those are themselves inseparable from powers of illumination in his thought, when he wrote that “the mind in its creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.” Though presented as a simile here, the relationship of imagination to brightness is deeper in Shelley’s work, and in one central tradition of sublime poetry, where the height of the imagination is to imagine that which allows for the perception of images at all, and where the imagination is itself, in its most austere self-consciousness, like light: everywhere inseparable from being (whether being is seen or not, as Milton knew). The sublime—and I admit it is not the only sublime—that would realize light in language, as Dante and Milton do, as Shelley does not do in quite the same way, with the same perfect balance, but with a comparable intensity of purpose, perceives light in, and light as, thought, and thought in, and thought as, the solid world.
Shelley does not, it could be said, write about light, but he writes light itself. Shelley’s sublime depends upon seeing the world transfigured by the physical properties of light that diffuses objects and things, rather than emanating from it. Rather than claim something is aglow in order to enforce the sense that it is special, Shelley makes the glowing properties of objects special because he is so impressed by light for what it is, on its own terms, as a natural phenomenon.