ON A DISPUTED PASSAGE IN SHELLEY'S " ALASTOR."
TO THE EDITOR OF THE "SPECTATOR."]
Sin,—In Shelley's " Alastor " occurs the following passage :—
" Calm he still pursued
The stream that with a larger volume now Rolled through the labyrinthine dell; and there Fretted a path through its descending curves With its wintry speed. On every side now rose Rocks, which in unimaginable forms, Lifted their black and barren pinnacles In the light of evening, and its precipice Obscuring the ravine, disclosed above, Mid toppling stones, black gulphs and yawning caves, Whose windings gave ten thousand various tongues To the loud stream."
To this passage, at the word " precipice " Mr. Buxton Forman, in his careful and conscientious edition of Shelley, appends a note, which I should like to quote in full, but to which I fear-you would grudge the space it would, from its great length, require. Let me, however, give you a sentence or two, to show how serious a difficulty is supposed to exist in the interpretation of the pass- age itself, and so justify my troubling you. Mr. Forman says,— " This much disputed passage has not yet been interpreted in a manner approaching catisfactoriness." He then gives a reading suggested by Mr. Rossetti, and quotes Mr. Swinbume's opinion that such reading is "intolerable and impossible ;" that It would make "one of the mightiest masters of language" guilty of "the most monstrous example on record of verbal deformity," &a. Mr. Forman then gives Mr. Swinburne's explanation, which (Mr. Swinburne confesses) leaves the sentence "hanging loose and 'ragged, short by a line at least, and never wound up to any end at all ;" and concludes with a suggested emendation of his own which seems as unsatisfactory as the others ; and as one, in the Westminster Review, which he (Mr. Forman) condemns.
Two strange misapprehensions seem to have created all the difficulty :—First, "Its precipice obscuring the ravine." Shelley has simply reversed the usual order of noun and pronoun in this phrase, putting the latter before the noun it refers to. So it means, "the ravine's precipice obscuring it [the ravine]." This is no very great liberty to take with language intended to be highly poetical, and elevated above ordinary speech. But even in ordinary speech it would be intelligible enough ; as, for in- stance, "a cab was coming down the street at a furious pace, and his load obscuring a porter's rision, he was knocked down by it.' The second misapprehension refers to the words "disclosed above." The commentators quoted construe "above "as equivalent to the upper part of the stream or glen, as the London watermen use it when they speak of the Thames "above bridge." But the word here simply implies perpendicular height over the level of the stream. And " disclosed" is the perfect tense, not the participle, of the verb, with " precipice " for its nominative case. Then the whole passage reads thus,—On every side now rose black and barren pinnacles, and the precipice of the ravine, which obscured it (the ravine) with its shadow, disclosed above, 'mid toppling stones,—i.e., showed from above and from the midst of the stones which toppled on its verge, the black gulfs and yawning caves down below,—in the jaws of the pass.
What more natural than to say, the top of the precipice dis- closed a view of things down below which could be seen from nowhere else? It gives double reality to the picture, thus to show the necessity there was for the poet (Shelley himself most probably), if he wished to see the further course of the stream, to go to the top of the precipice, and look down through the black chasm, with its torrent foaming on between rocks and caves unapproach- able from below, either in a boat or on foot. Shelley may have alluded to this very scene, among others, when he said, in the pre- face to " Laon and Cythna," "I have been familiar from boyhood with mountains and lakes, and the sea and the solitude of forests. Danger which sports upon the brink of precipices has been my playmate." This obvious interpretation is confirmed by the word "toppling." Stones might, indeed, "topple," though only rest- ing on banks or rocks a little higher than the level of a rushing torrent ; but the word naturally suggests a much loftier lodgment. The whole, read so, is as clear as a photograph. Rocks of all forms, with their " pinnacles " emerging from the slanting shadow of the wall or precipice of the ravine into the evening sunlight ; and the torrent, entering the jaws of the pass and dashing between black gulfs and caves, only visible from the stones toppling on the verge of the precipice.
There seems, then, no need for any alteration, even in the punctuation of the passage as originally printed. Its wording in Shelley's edition is strictly correct. Everything shows he com- posed and versified " Alastor " with the greatest care, which seems to have been taken also with the printing. It might, perhaps, be of advantage to strike out the comma after "above," and to insert a dash after the word "stones," to separate this noun from the " gulphs " and "caves," and show even more plainly that these last two are the objective cases after the verb "disclosed ;" and not, like the former, governed by the preposi- tion "mid,"—as the critics seem to have thought.
There is a passage in another poem which Mr. Forman leaves in great obscurity, which seems to me equally easy of explanation without any amendment. But I am afraid I have gone already into the above at too great length, though I have always read it without being aware of any obscurity about it. But the very high authority of the poets Mr. Forman quotes forces one to believe
there must be some.—I am, Sir, &C., ALFRED DOMETT.