1. Quarterly Review: April 1819
This is the first of the reviews, and it is important to bear this one in mind in particuar because it is probably the most complete review of the Revolt of Islam. Also, there is a subsequent review (#3) that was written as a response to this one.
Basically -- it is a harsh criticism of Shelley's Revolt of Islam. So much so that it actually "set Shelley in a rage." Not only does this criticism dissect the poem, but the poet as well, taking full liberty to delve into his personal life to attempt to reveal the inadequacies of Shelley:
[Mr.Shelley] is, we are sorry to say, in sober earnest: -- with perfect deliberation, and the steadiest perseverance he perverts all the gifts of his nature, and does all the injury, both public and private, which his faculties enable him to perpetrate.The poem was originally entitled Laon and Cythna after the protagonists of the poem. However, Shelley later made a few alterations in the poem and one of the things he changed along with the rest was the name to the present. These alterations, however, were not received with much kindness by our reviewers:
But with minds of a certain class, notoriety, infamy, any thing is better than obscurity; baffled in a thousand attempts after fame, they will still make one more at whatever risk,-- and they end commonly like an awkward chemist who perseveres in tampering with his ingredients, till, in an unlucky moment, they take fire, and he is blown up by the explosion.Thus, the reviewers felt that the changes only contributed to the subsequent worsening of the poem.
However, there are instances where the reviewers stop to give some tribute to the efforts of Shelley:
Though we should be sorry to see The Revolt of Islam in our reader's hands, we are bound to say that it is not without beautiful passages, that the language is in general free from errors of taste, and the versification smooth and harmonious.Yet these moments are fleeting and illusory for within the next two lines the reviewers discredit Shelley for his work by calling him an "unsparing imitator" of another notorious "mountain poet." This reference is to Wordsworth and even his philosophies do not escape the scathing commentary of the reviewers. However, in a few paragraph the reviewers then contradict themselves. Whereas before they had allowed the beauty of the poem to be the only redeeming quality of the poem, later they become just a "rare occurence".
In its totality, The Revolt of Islam is "insupportably dull, and laboriously obscure; its absurdities are not of the kind which provoke laughter, the story is almost wholly devoid of interest, and very meagre; nor can we admire Mr. Shelley's mode of making up for this defect--as he has but one incident where he should have ten, he tells that one so intricately, that it takes the time of ten to comprehend it."
Another sore spot for the critics was Shelley's flagrant abuse of Christianity. What especially infuriated them was his rejection of Christian virtues such as faith and repentance:
He manifests a dislike to Chrisitianity which is ... ridiculous. he selects a Christian priest to be the organ of sentiments outrageously and pre-eminently cruel. Whenever any thing bad is to be accounted for, any hard name to be used, this convenient monosyllable [Faith] fills up the blank.Furthermore, the critics hardly saw the relevance of the poem. Since it was an attack on corrupt institutions, they did not see how it could have any bearing on them or any influence on their beliefs and views, especially since they lived so content under their own regime:
...we ask Mr. Shelley how his case applies to us? or what we learn from it to the prejudice of our own institution?In conclusion, the reviewers basically refute his purpose. And as a final jab, they entreat him to seek "strength from above":
Let him not be offended at our freedom, but he is really too young, too ignorant, too inexperienced, and too vicious to undertake the task of reforming any world, but the little world within his own breast.
2. Review from Man of Kent: November 1818
This review was less harsh than the first one. Yet it was also less detailed and more interested in giving readers a brief synopsis of the poem than actually offering a real critique.
Nevertheless, it does point out some flaws, but they hardly affect the grandeur of the poem:
The faults of this performance are, that its drift and aim will not be clearly understood by that class to whom it might be of use. The style is in some instances over-wrought, and "horrors heaped on horrors head" with a sort of German exaggeration. Many verbal inaccuracies may be observed, evidently the result of haste and carelessness; but they are but spots in the Sun.Thus unlike the first review which condemned Shelley for stating his purpose in a very ineffective way, the Man of Kent Review sees his purpose as being understood by only a chosen few.
3. Review from The Examiner: February 1818
This review was written mainly as a rebuttal against the original Quarterly Review review which had previously condemned Shelley and his revolt of Islam. The primary purpose is to vindicate both author and work:
Mr. Shelley is of opinion with many others that the world is a very beautiful one externally, but wants a good deal of mending with respect to it's mind and habits; and for this purpose he would quash as many cold and selfish passions as possible, and rouse up the gentle element of Love, till it set our earth rolling more harmoniously....The book is full of humanity; and yet it certainly does not go the best way to work of appealing to it, because it does not appeal to it through the medium of common knowledges. It is for this reason that we must say something, which we would willingly leave unsaid, both from admiration of Mr. Shelley's genius and love of his benevolence; and this is, that the work cannot become popular.
4. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine: January 1819 The final review that is of some significance is Blackwood's. Although it is an overall positive review of The Revolt of Islam, it seemed to me to be more of a "left-handed compliment." The reviewer is content with the subject of the poetry; however, he is honest enough to note the fallacies of the text. His criticisms echo that of many other reviewers in saying that the text is incoherent and seems to have been hurried along in its course:
but the author has composed his poem in much haste, and he has inadvetetly left many detached parts, both of his story and his allusions, to be made out as the reader best can, from very inadequate data... we venture to prophesy, will be found sufficient to prevent the Revolt of Islam from ever becoming any thing like a favourite with the multitudes.Regardless, the reviewer has a few nice things to say about the poem as well:
His praise is, in our judgment, that of having poured over his narrative a very rare stregth and abundance of poetic imagery and feeling--of having steeped every word in the essence of his inspiration ... Mr. Shelley has displayed his possession of a mind intensely poetical, and of an exuberance of poetic language, perpetually varied.