Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792-1822

With apologies we offer this brief biography: Shelley was born to wealth; pampered as a child; bullied at Eton; expelled from Oxford; cast aside by his father; married not for love; ran away with whom he thought was real love; deprived of his children; offended fellow literarians; lived in self-exile; and drowned at sea. All of which were accomplished by the age of thirty and most of which could have been avoided had he not wrapped himself in mantle of the romantic revolutionary. William Courthope refers to him as the Don Quixote of poetry, seeing him as tilting at the existing order of society and with the same result.

He was called “Mad Shelley” at Eton because “surrounded, hooted, baited like a maddened bull...this gentle, dreamy, idealistic, high-spirited, excitable boy would be seized with a frenzy and paroxysm of rage which frighted his persecutors.” He spent his days at Oxford railing against injustice, cruelty, and oppression; producing pamphlets to incite rebellion of national wrongs, and attacking organized religion while advocating civil protest and political action. It was his blasphemous pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism that angered the Oxford community, and when he refused to recant his argument his studies at Oxford were terminated, his relationship with his father ended, and, so to, was his career as a poet and writer. His work never made the top ten during his short life, but he did manage to engage close friends in Leigh Hunt, Southey, and Byron. Years later Gandhi would often quote from Shelley's Masque of Anarchy, which has been called "perhaps the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent resistance." His rhetoric managed to repulse many of the literary cliques of the day, Whig and Tory, the Edinburgh Review of Francis Jeffrey, The Blackwood of John Wison (pseu. Christopher North), The Quarterly under William Gifford. The Examiner under Leigh Hunt was his only ally. Even the extraordinary allegory Alastor was “hailed as one of the most ludicrous pretensions in an age fertile in ludicrous literary pretensions...a mere incoherent farce of meaningless imagery...” Some of this early rejection of Shelley’s works was due mostly to the Whiggery of the time - the rivalry between literary Edinburgh and literary London.

He was described by Stopford Brooke as tall...his face was small, irregular, white-skinned...large, prominent eyes with heavy, wavy, dark-brown hair. His voice was unusual in that friends found it “excruciating,” “discordant,” “like a high cracked soprano or natural counter-tenor,” “like a Lancashire accent.” “Some who heard it for the first time compared it to the scream of a peacock.” One of his last poems, Adonais (1821), is said to have a description of “the man himself.”

“Midst others of less note, came one frail Form,
A phantom among men; companionless
As the last cloud of an expiring storm
Whose thunder is its knell; he, as I guess,
Had gazed on Nature’s naked loveliness,
Actaeon-like, and now he fled astray
With feeble steps o’er the world’s wilderness,
And his own thoughts, along that rugged way,
Pursued, like raging hounds, their father and their prey.

His head was bound with pansies overblown,
And faded violets, white and pied, and blue;
And a light spear topped with a cypress cone,
Round whose rude shaft dark I’ve-tresses grew
Yet dripping with the forest’s noonday dew,
Vibrated, as the ever-beating heart
Shook the weak hand that grasped it; of that crew
He came the last, neglected and apart;
A hard-abandoned deer struck by the hunter’s dart.”

His Queen Mab (1811) was a serious, philosophical treatise on atheism, human, and animal injustice and any other social inequality open to attack in Chartist fashion. This radical poem was a long, philosophical treatise of nine cantos; attacking dogmatic religion and the social state. But they were more than just words: what money Shelley was allotted was properly spent to relieve the stress of shivering beggars and inconvenient ruffians. He printed and privately distributed this work:

“Kings, priests, and statesmen blast the human flower
Even in its tender-bud; their influence darts,
Like subtle poison, thought the bloodless veins
Of desolate society.” Queen Mab

Shelley was not without odd behaviors, for example, he loved pistol shooting. Christopher Hogg writes “How often have I lamented that Nature, which so rarely bestows upon the world a creature endowed with such marvelous talents, ungraciously rendered the gift less precious by implanting a fatal taste for perilous recreations, and a thoughtlessness in the pursuit of them, that often caused his existence from one day to another to seem miraculous.” Another of his addictions was that of sailing and it was a sailing mishap that caused his death.

Yet another example was the obsessive occupation with a vegetarian diet. The extent of his beliefs are found in his essays on vegetarianism, topping the list would be A Vindication of Natural Diet and On the Vegetable System of Diet (1813). Shelley, in the preface, writes: "If the use of animal food be, in consequence, subversive to the peace of human society, how unwarrantable is the injustice and the barbarity which is exercised toward these miserable victims. They are called into existence by human artifice that they may drag out a short and miserable existence of slavery and disease, that their bodies may be mutilated, their social feelings outraged. It were much better that a sentient being should never have existed, than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery."

"Never again may blood of bird or beast
Stain with its venomous stream a human feast...
To the pure skies in accusation steaming...

"It is only by softening and disguising dead flesh by culinary preparation that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion, and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust."

The appendix of Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem (1813) was an inappropriate essay about the need to change to a vegetarian diet:

"And man ... no longer now
He slays the lamb that looks him in the face,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh."

His advocacy for social justice for the "lower classes" was an extension of the mistreatments occurring in the domestication and slaughtering of animals. He regarded all living creatures, human and animal, as deserving fair and just treatment. He would not drink tea with sugar, because sugar was the produce of slave-labor. His disastrous marriage in 1811 to Harriet Westbrook was not for love or devotion but a self-proclaimed attempt to release her from her oppressive parents. In 1812, Shelley, with Harriet at his side, sailed to Ireland to launch an utopian campaign to vindicate national wrongs in his An Address to the Irish People. Ignored, he returned to England.

Continuing his rebellious theme he sent placed copies of Declaration of Rights, and The Devil’s Walk into bottles and set them to sail the sea. A few years later, after the birth of his son, he put his sword in its sheath; abandoning political and religious stirings, he wrote Essay on Christianity, which was published posthumously.

What was his poetry like? Queen Mab was written in blank uneven iambic lines, described once as “over-metrical prose.”

Earth, ocean, air, beloved brotherhood!
If our great Mother has imbued my soul
With aught of natural piety to feel
Your love, and recompense the boon with mine;
If dewy morn, and odorous noon, and even,
With sunset and its gorgeous ministers,
And solemn midnight's tingling silentness;
If autumn's hollow sighs in the sere wood,
And winter robing with pure snow and crowns
Of starry ice the grey grass and bare boughs;
If spring's voluptuous pantings when she breathes
Her first sweet kisses, have been dear to me;
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!

Shelley had no poetic preference, style or form. Here is the romantic, joyful Hymn of Pan:

“The wind in the reeds and the rushes,
The bees on the bells of thyme,
The birds on the myrtle-bushes,
The cicale above in the lime,
And the lizards below in the grass,
Were a silent as ever old Timolus was
Listening to my sweet pipings.”

Then there is the stoic of allegorical poem Laon and Cythna on the French Revolution which he renamed as The Revolt of Islam.

“What then was I? She slumbered with the dead.
Glory and joy and peace had come and gone.
Doth the cloud perish when the beams are fled
Which steeped its skirts in gold? Or, dark and lone,
Doth it not through the paths of night, unknown

Peter Bell, the Third is a parody after Wordsworth’s narrative poem Peter Bell, which Leigh Hunt deemed "a didactic little horror…founded on the bewitching principles of fear, bigotry, and diseased impulse". Other reviewers spoke of its "gross perversion of intellect" and "tincture of imbecility", and pronounced it "superlatively silly", "daudling, impotent drivel". Shelley’s take was equally criticized as “extremely dull” and repetitive, another effort at attacking all aspects of “English society and economic folly.”

His passion was “for reforming the world.” which, in his view, is rife with wrong and corruption. The song he sung never changed. Even the most acclaimed Adonais, in praise of John Keats, whom he hardly knew, offered but another opportunity to rail at injustice and the meaning of life and death and man’s role in both.

“Whence are we, and why are we?
Of what scene the actors or spectators?...
The one remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
(man “made one with nature”)
Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity.”

“Kings, priests, and statesmen blast the human flower
Even in its tender bud; their influence darts,
Like subtle poison, through the bloodless veins
Of desolate society.”

In Defense of Poetry (1840) he writes that the poet is a “law-giver” it is the poet who will lead mankind to freedom..” the poet is that spirit of good of which they are the ministers” “the words which express what they understand not;...and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Here he embraces the Platonic Theory of the art, that wisdom and virtue are conceived by artists. Shelly describes poetry as “the centre and circumference of knowledge.” In the lyric poem Hymn to Intellectual Beauty (1817), he again leans on a Plato concept: that of Eternal Beauty and the Neo-Platonism dualisms as he writes:

“Spirit of Beauty, that does consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form - where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
Ask why the sunlight not forever
Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain-river.
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?

In 1824 Shelley wrote a narrative poem of enjambed heroic couplets, Julian and Maddalo. Of the two characters, Count Maddalo is a nobleman and as such is somewhat detached from everyday life “an intense apprehension of the nothingness of human life”. The narrator is Julian who, on the other hand, is an English expatriate and atheist, “who believes in the power of man over his own mind”. They argue about “God, freewill, and destiny.”

“Of all that earth has been or yet may be,
All that vain men imagine or believe,
Or hope can paint or suffering may achieve,...
Argues against despondency, but pride,
Made my companion take the darker side,
The sense that he was greater than his kind
Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind.”

Shelley had little success with the sonnet form. The most famous is Ozymandias (1818) best described as “interrupted terza rima”. There were some serious flaws. For example: the unacceptable rhyming: stone/frown; read/fed; appear/despair. The use of the comma in the middle of a sentence as in “Tameless, and swift, and proud” and “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is.” Some leeway is allowed in that the occasion for the writing of this sonnet was a contest where time precluded the opportunity for refinement. We set aside the sonnet form errors and examine the clear message given in line nine of the sestet of the “tragically vain ineffectuality of all human attempts to achieve immortality through earthly glory”

“While yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things...
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings.
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains, Ruin the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
There was satire with Peter Bell the Third.

“Statesmen damn themselves to be
Cursed; and lawyers damn their souls
To the auction of a fee:
Churchment calm themselves to see
God’s sweet love in burning coals.
The rich are damned, beyond all cure,
To taunt, and starve, and trample on
The weak and wretched; and the poor
Damn their broken hearts to endure
Stripe on stripe, with groan on groan.

As a play writer he had two successes first, The Cenci, a tragedy in five acts based upon a real family. This was also the only grand slam attempt at an historical event. The second was Prometheus Unbound, which starts as a lyric drama and midpoint becomes a paean. Zeus becomes the symbol of tyranny and Prometheus the man, his opponent. We know who lost this battle. Masson wrote that Shelley was unsuccessful with any theme that required time, place, cause and effect, race, climate and the like. But when he fell into winged forms, imaginary kingdoms, Tartar horsemen, Grecian mythology, and the possibility to allegorize mortals then adding mists, rain, winds, moons, lightnings, and falling stars, he had no equal.

Shelley is best as a romantic. In One Word is Too Often Profaned (1824):

“The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.”
As a point from distant space”

The lyric poem: The Cloud (1820)

“I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
For the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noon-day dreams;
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet birds every one.
When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast
As she dances about the sun;
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.”

And To a Skylark

“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art”

And in a symbolic theme of When the Lamp Is Shattered (1824)

“When the lamp is shattered,
The light in the dust lies dead;
When the cloud is scattered,
The rainbow’s glory is shed,
When the lute is broken,
Sweet tones are remembered not;
When the lips have spoken,
Loved accents are soon forgot.”

Then there are the Odes, of which the most famous is Ode to the West Wind, written in terza rima, aba, bcb, cdc, ded, ee. Shelley writes "this poem was conceived and chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno , near Florence, and on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapours which pour down the autumnal rains. They began, as I foresaw, at sunset with a violent tempest of hail and rain, attended by that magnificent thunder and lightning peculiar to the regions"

“Wild west wind, thou breath of Autumn's being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill;

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!”

At Shelley's death Stopford Brooke remarked that “he doubts whether fifty people in England knew and appreciated his work. So what are the competing impulses characteristic of his genius?

Our first characteristic is impassioned, extreme idealism, the “generous error.”

“Let those who pine in pride or in revenge,
Or think that ill for ill should be repaid,
Who barter wrong for wrong, until the exchange
Ruins the merchants of such thrifless trade,
Visit the tower of Vado, and unlearn
Such bitter faith besaide Marenghi’s urn.” Maz(r)enghi

Note: Capo Di Vado is actually a lighthouse in Vado Liguria - refers to the conflict between the Italian city-states a conflict which was settled when Pisa was excommunicated by the Pope.

“The is the winter of the world; and here
We die, even as the winds of autumn fade,
Expiring in the froae and foggy air,
Behold! Spring comes, tho’ we must pass who made
The promise of its birth, even as the shade
Which from our death, as from a mountain flings
The future, a broad sunrise; thus arrayed
As with the plumes of overshadowing wings,
From its darn gulf of chains, Earth like an eagle springs.” Revolt of Islam

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“He had taken up what is called the system of Idealism. According to this philosophy, taken from Hume and Berkeley and partly Plato, not matter, but thought, is the fundamental reality of the universe. Everything is thought; nothing exists but in and through thought.” David Masson

“Imagination or mind employed prophetically in imaging forth its objects is the faculty of human nature on which every gradation of its progress- nay every minutest change, depends."

“The key-note of Shelley’s character, his ruling motive, was an excessively sensitive hatred of everything in the shape of harshness, tyranny, injustice,, carried to extremes.” William Minto

“At the time had adopted the conclusions of materialism, he was at heart all tho]gouth his life an idealist.” Mark Pattison

“Shelley called the “generous error” the error of those who try to live life by a vision of it, thus transforming the world about them and impressing upon it their character...” Shelley distinguishes this from the trembling throng” who “languish” and are “morally dead,” who live eclectically because they have not the courage to live out the implications of their own natures, who are too prudent to venture al on what must turn out to have been a noble delusion.” Robert Langbaum

“He (Shelley) wished to sweep away entirely the present social scheme - all rules and priests, all laws and customs - and then to build upon the wrecks of faiths and empires a new world. He had, to use is own words, a ‘passion for reforming the world’; he would have rejoiced in the prospect of a second deluge.” Edward Bliss Reed

“Among the few who have been called “Poets of the People”, assuredly the first and noblest name is that of Shelley. Born and educated an aristocrat, his noble and benevolent soul scorned such a connection - broke the many fetters which birth and education had cast around it, and shone forth in its strength and beauty the foremost advocate of Liberty to the despised people. “Shelley loved the people” says his biographer, “he respected them as often more virtuous, and always more suffering, and therefore more deserving of sympathy than the great. He believed that, sooner or later, a clash between the two classes was inevitable, and without hesitation, he ranged himself on the people’s side. The treatment of the prople by the upper classes “roused in him violent emotions of indignation and compassion,” and inspired by these feelings, he wrote to teach his injured countrymen the freat laws of union, and the strength of passive resistance. The nobleness and independence of his soul, was even surpassed by his expansive, disinterested, overflowing benevolence; one who had every reason to know his generosity, says “he never trod a step, but what he left behind him the mark of benevolence.” The Chartist Circular, October 18, 1839.

Our second characteristic is longing for good, joy, optimism, respect.

“Spirit of Nature! Thou
Like of interminable multitudes
Soul of those mighty spheres
Whose changeless paths through,
Heaven’s deep silence lie,
Soul of the smallest being
The dwelling of whose life
Is one faint April sun-gleam
Man, like these passing things,
Thy will unconsciously fulfilleth:
Like theirs, his age of endless peace,
Which time is fast naturing,
Will swiftly, surely, come;
And the unbounded frame which thou pervadest
Will be without a flaw
Marring its perfect symmetry.” Queen Mab

“Life may change, but it may fly not;
Hope may vanish, but can die not;
Truth be veiled, but still it burneth;
Love repulsed, but it returneth.” Hellas, written in semi-chorus form

“There was a youth, who, as with toil and travel,
Had grown quite weak and gray before his time;
Nor any could the restless griefs unravel
Which burned within him, withering up his prime
And goading him, like fiends, from land ro land.
Not his the load of any secret crime,

For nought of ill his heart could understand,
But pity and wild sorrow for the same;
Not his thirst for glory or command,

Baffled with blast of hope-consuming shame;
Nor evil joys which fire the vulgar breast,
And quench in speedy smoke its feeble flame,

Had left within his soul their dark unrest:
Nor what religion fables of the grave
Feared he, Philosophy’s accepted guest.

For none than he a purer heart could have,
Or that loved good more for itself alone;
Of nought in heaven or earth was he the slave.” Prince Athanase Part I

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:

“Melodious Shelley caught thy softest song,
And they who heard his music heard not thine;
Gentle and joyous, delicate and strong,
From the far tomb his voice shall silence mine.” Stephen Landor

“I follow Beauty, of her train, am I.” Shelley

“He finds, as does every genius, that the beauty of the world is new and unknown...he describes flowers in gardens and fields; he revels in the odors of the earth; he listens with the joy of a discoverer to the song of the birds.” Reed

“We visited Lausanne, and saw Gibbon’s [Edward] house. We were shown the decayed summer-house where he finished his History, and the old acacias on the terrace, from which he saw Mont Blanc, after having written the last sentence. There is something grand and even touching in the regret which he expresses at the completion of his task. It was conceived amin the ruins of the Capitol. The sudden departure of his cherished and accustomed toil must have left him, like the death of a dear friend, sad and solitary. My companion cathered some acacia leaves to preserve in remembrance of him. I refrained from doing so, fearing to outrage the greater and more sacred name of Rousseau; the contemplation of whose imperishable creations had left no vacancy in my heart for mortal things. Gibbons had a cold and unimpassioned spirit. I never felt more inclination to rail at the prejudices which cling to such a thing, than now that Julie [Rousseaus example of authenticity and Clarens the village where she dwelt] and Lausanne and the Roman Empire [of Gibbon] compelled me to a contrast between Rousseau and Gibbon.” Letter 2 to Thomas Love Peacock, July 12, 1816.

Our third characteristic is melancholy, despair, grief, sadness.

“If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O Uncontrollable!
If even I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud. Canto IV Ode to the West Wind

“The warm sun is failing, the bleak wind is wailing,
The bare boughs are sighing, the pale flowers are dying;
And the year
On the earth her deathbed, in a shroud of leaves dead,
Is lying.
Come months, come away,
From November to May,
In your saddest array;
Follow the bier
Of the dead cold year,
And like dim shadows satch by her sepulchre. Autumn a dirge

“I could lie down like a tired child,
And weep away the life of care
Which I have borne, and yet must bear” Dejection

“First our pleasures die and then
Our hopes, and then our fears - and when
These are dead, the debt is due,
Dust claims dust - and we die too. Death

“We look before and after,
And pine for what is not,
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught:
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” To a Skylark

“Swiftly walk o’er the western wave,
Spirit of Night!
Out of the misty eastern cave,
Where, all the long and lone daylight,
Thou wovest dreams of joy and fear,
Which make thee terrible and dear–
Swift be thy flight!
Wrap thy form in a mantle gray,
Star-inwrought!
Blind with thine hair the eyes of day;
Kiss her until she be wearied out,
Then wander o’er city, and sea, and land,
Touching all with thine opiate wand–
Come, long-sought!”
“When I arose and saw the dawn,
I sighed for thee;
When light rode high, and the dew was gone,
And noon lay heavy on flower and tree,
And the weary day turned to his rest,
Lingering like an unloved guest,
I sighed for thee.
Thy brother Death came, and cried,
Wouldst thou me?
Thy sweet child Sleep, the filmy-eyed,
Murmured like a noontide bee,
Shall I nestle near thy side?
Wouldst thou me?–And I replied,
No, not thee!” Ode to Night

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:

“I am disgusted with writing, and were it not for an irresistible impulse that predominates my better reason, should discontinue so doing.” Shelley

“If we turn from Shelley’s life to his art, he felt the lack of appreciation and even the hostility shown towards his poetry... Reed

“Nothing is more difficult and unwelcome than to write without a confidence of finding readers.” Shelley

“I will not pursue Buffon’s [Count de] sublime but gloomy theory that this globe which we inhabit will, at some future period, be chanted into a mast of frost by the encroachments of the polar ice...One would think that Mont Blanc, like the god of the Stoics, was a vast animal, and that the frozen blood forever circulated through his stormy veins.” Letter to Peacock, July, 1816

“I had no conception of the excess to which avarice, cowardice, supersition, ignorance, passionless lust, and all the inexpressible brutalities which degrade human nature, could be carried, until I had passed a few day at Venice.” Letter to Peacock Este, October 8. 1818

“I am devising literary plans of some magnitude. But nothing is more difficult and u nwelcome than to write without confidence of finding readers; and if my play of the Cenci found none or few, I despair of ever producing anything that shall merit them.” Letter 30 Pisa, November 1890

He rebelled against the bullying at Eton and dedicated these lines to this abuse:

“Thoughts of great deeds were mine, dear Friend, when first
The clouds which wrap this world from youth did pass.
I do remeber well the hour which burst
My spirit’s sleep: a fresh May-dawn it was,
When I walked forth upon the glittering grass,
And wept, I knew not why; until thre rose
From the near schoolroom, voices, that, alas!
Were but an echo from the world of woes
Thehard and grating strife of tyrants and of foes,
And then I clasped my hands and looked around
But none was near to mock my streaming eyes.
Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground
So without shame I spake - ‘I will be wise,
And just, and free, and mild, if in me lies
Such power, for I grow weary to behold
The selfish and the strong still tyranise
Without reproach or check.’ I then controlled
My tears; my heart grew calm, and I was meek and bold.” Revolt of Islam

Our fourth characteristic is the metaphysical, outer earthly, mysticism

“O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is!
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
Will take from both a deep autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
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!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth.
The trumpet of prophecy! O wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” Invocation to the West Wind

“Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass
Stains the shite radiance of eternity.” Adonais

“What shape is that between us!” Its rude hair
Roughens the winds that lift it, its regard
Is wild and quick, yet ‘tis a thing of air,
For through its grey robe gleams the golden dew
Whose stars the noon has quenched not.” Prometheus Unbound

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:

“Leigh Hunt used to tell him that he had come from the planet Mercury. But it might be fitter to fancy that he had come from none, but till he touched our earth, had been winging about in unsubstantial ether.” David Masson

“Shelly is an enchanter rather than a seer.” Edward Bliss Reed

In The Wonderful Visit H. G. Wells tells “a tale of an English clergyman, who, while out gunning for birds in the woods, had the luck to shoot and bring down not a bird but an angel. The creature proved to be a seraph who had winged his way too near the earth and so come within range of the clerical gun...his wings gradually shrink and at last disappear altogether; so that the net result is that there is one more human being and one less seraph. Many were reminded of the poet Shelley. Critics had repeatedly compared him to a creature from another sphere who had, as it were, lost his way, and somehow become involved in the confusion and trivialities of an alien world and an alien society which he could neither comprehend nor alter, despite convulsive and renewed efforts to do so.” Chauncey Tinker

“Beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain” Matthew Arnold Essays on Criticism

“...Shelley as a poet is what may be called his ‘myth-making’ power. His poetry is full of personifications, which although in origin not different from those which fill eighteenth-century poetry with dead abstractions like ‘smiling hope’ and ‘ruddy cheer,’ are imagined with such power that they become real spiritual presences inspiring wonder and awe.” Moody and Lovett

Such are all Shelley’s poetic “Spirits” - “grief-clad Morning” “wailing Spring” “desolate Hours” “winged Persuasions”, “veiled Destinies” “stainless noon”.

“Shelley deals less with actualities than does any other English poet. His imagery is that of a dream world, peopled by ethereal forms and bathed in prismatic light.” Moody and Lovett

“We move in Shelley’s world between heaven and earth, in abstraction, in dreamland, symbolism: the beings float in it like those fantastic figures which we see in the clouds, and which alternately undulate and change form capriciously, in their robes of snow and gold.” Adolphe Taine

“His descriptions are often strangely unreal. They seem to be enveloped in a hazy, wavering atmosphere, as if they were not actual scenes but the combinations of a remembered dream. One does not look upon them as he looks upon living nature when he stands face to face with her beauty; but they are seen through a gauzy medium of memory, like places which may have impressed the mind in the earliest period of its consciousness...Words were often used by him in their common or obvious meaning but in a sense derived from remote and complicated relations...a great fault of Shelley’s poetry is the obscurity of which so many readers complain...A frequent cause of his obscurity is the excessive subtlety and refinement of his imagination.” William Godwin Note: Godwin shared Shelley’s belief that it is possible for man to live in harmony without law and institutions.

Our sixth characteristic is liberty, independence.

“He who taught man to vanquish whatsoever
Can be between the cradle and the grave
Crowned him the King of Life. Oh, vain endeavour!
If on his own high will, a willing slave,
He has enthroned the oppression and the oppressor
What if earth can clothe and feed
Amplest millions at their need,
And power in thought be as the tree within the seed?
Or what if Art, an ardent intercessor,
Driving on fiery wings to Nature’s throne,
Checks the great mother stooping to caress her,
And cries: “Give me, thy child, dominion
Over all height and depth” if life can breed
New wants, and wealth from those who toil and groan,
Rend of thy gifts and hers a thousandfold for one!” Ode to Liberty

“As an eagle fed with morning
Scorns the embattled tempest’s warning
When she seeks her aerie hanging
In the mountain cedar’s hair,
And her brood expect the clanging
Of her wings through the wild air,
Sick with famine; Freedom so
To what Greece remaineth now
Returns. Her hoary ruins glow
Like orient mountains lot in day;
Beneath the safety of her wings
Her renovated nurslings play,
And in the naked lightenings
Of truth they purge their dazzled eyes.
Let Freedom leave, wher’er she flies,
A desert or a paradise;
Let the beautiful and the brave
Share her glory or a grave!” Hellas

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

The Ode to Liberty its finest expression, is the greatest English ode. Swinburne

“No other poem (Ode to the West Wind) better discloses his passive imagination, his desire to be played upon and stimulated, and thou his melancholy appears har also, the song ends in an unusually hopeful strain.” Edward Reed

“When we search closely for Shelley’s meaning of liberty we find it to be a vague ideal. He had no well-considered plan for either a new republic or a new faith; he simply wished freedom from every restraint of government and religion, having an implicit faith in the power of the untrammeled mind and soul to create a new Paradise.” Edward Reed

“In the firm expectation that when London shall be a habitation of bitterns, when St. Paul and Westminster Abbey shall stand shapeless and nameless ruins in the midst of an unpeopled marsh, when the piers of Waterloo bridge shall become the nuclei of islets of reeds and osiers, and cast the jagged shadows of their broken arches on the solitary stream, some Transatlantic commentator will be weighing in the scales of some new and now unimagined system of criticism the respective merits of the Bells and the Fudges and their historians.” Shelley

“When we search closely for Shelley’s meaning of liberty we find it to be a vague ideal. He had no well-considered plan for either a new republic or a new faith; he simply wished freedom from every restraint of government and trammeled the mind and soul to create a new Paradise.” Edward Reed

“Prometheus Unbound however remote the foundation of its subject matter and unactual its executive treatment, does in reality express the most modern of conceptions, the utmost reach of speculation of a mind which burst up all crusts of custom and prescription like a volcano, and imaged forth a future wherein man should be indeed the autocrat and the renovated renovation of his planet. It is the ideal poem of perpetual and triumphant progression. The Atlantis of Man Emancipated William Rossetti

Our sixth characteristic is strong imaginativeness.

“And plants at whose name the verse feels loth
Filled the place with a monstrous undergrowth
Prickly and pulpous and blistering and blue,
Livid, and starred with a lurid dew.

And all killing insects and gnawing worms,
And things of obscene and unlovely forms,
She bore, in a basket of Indian woof,
Into the rough woods far aloof,--

In a basket, of grasses and wild-flowers full,
The freshest her gentle hands could pull
For the poor banished insects, whose intent,
Although they did ill, was innocent.

But the bee and the beamlike ephemeris
Whose path is the lightning's, and soft moths that kiss
The sweet lips of the flowers, and harm not, did she
Make her attendant angels be.

And many an antenatal tomb,
Where butterflies dream of the life to come,
She left clinging round the smooth and dark
Edge of the odorous cedar bark.” The Sensitive Plant

“There creeps a clinging, black, contaminating mist
About me ‘tis substantial, heavy, thick;
I cannot pluck it from me, for it glues
My fingers and limbs to one another,
And eats into my sinews, and dissolves
My flesh to a pollution, poisoning
The subtle, pure, and inmost spirit of life!
My God! I never knew what the mad felt
Before; for I am mad beyond all doubt!” The Cenci

“The woman’s shape, now lank and cold and blue,
The dwelling of the many-colored worm,
Hung there; the white and hollow cheek I drew
To my dry lips What radiance did inform
Those horny eyes? Whose was that withered form?” Revolt of Islam

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“Shelley makes nature ghostly; it is a spirit that he seeks behind the cloud and the rain.”

“He is over-fond of words that, in their abuse or excessive use, mayk be called hectic, such as ‘demon’, ‘curse’, ‘mad’, ‘poison’. and ‘blood’. This streak of the romantic novel of terror he never quite lost.” Oliver Elton Study of English Literature

“He was altogether incapable of rendering an account of any transaction whatsoever, according to the strict and precise truth, and the bare naked realities of actual life; not through the addiction to falsehoods but because he was the creature, the unsuspecting and unresisting victim, of his irresistible imagination.” Thomas Love Peacock

Our seventh characteristic is love as the pervading principle of the universe.

“And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;
What are all these kissing worth,
If thou kiss not me?” Love’s Philosophy

“And the grassy meadows bright and green,
And then I sunk in his embrace,
Enclosing there a mighty space
Of love: and so we travelled on
By woods, and fields of yellow flowers,
And towns, and villages, and towers,
Day after day of happy hours
It was the azure time of June,
When the skies are deep in the stainless noon,
And the warm and fitful breezes shake
The fresh green leaves of the hedgerow briar...
And when the evening star came forth
Above the curve of the new bent moon,
And light and sound ebbed from the earth,
Like the tide of the full and weary sea
To the depths of its tranquillity,
Our natures to its own repose
Did the earth’s breathless sleep attune:
Like flowers, which on each other close.” Rosalind and Helen

“How beautiful this night! The balmiest sigh
Which Vernal zephyrs breathe in evening’s ear
Were discord to the speaking quietude
That wraps this moveless scene. Heaven’s ebon vault,
Studded with stars, Unutterably bright,
Through which the moon’s unclouded grandeur rolls,
Seems lika canopy which love has spread
To curtain her sleeping world.” Queen Mab Pt. IV

“And the rose like a nymph to the bath addrest,
Which unveiled the depth of her glowing breast,
Till, fold after fold, to the fainting air,
The soul of her beaty and love lay bare.” The Sensative Plant

“True Love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away.
Love is like understanding, that grows bright,
Gazing on many truths; 'tis like thy light,
Imagination! which from earth and sky,
And from the depths of human fantasy,
As from a thousand prisms and mirrors, fills
The Universe with glorious beams, and kills
Error, the worm, with many a sun-like arrow
Of its reverberated lightning. 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. Epipshychidion from the Greek meaning “this soul out of my soul”

“See, the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;

And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;
What are all these kissing wort,
If thou kiss not me?” Love’s Philosophy

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:

“In Epipshychidion Shelley fantasizes a menage a trois with the a teenager daughter of a prominent politician. in his attempt to describe the depth of this relationship as a self-parody what would be called today as a call for “free love.”

We close with this message from the Spirits of Prometheus:

Our spoil is won,
Our task is done,
We are free to dive, or soar, or run;
Beyond and around,
Or within the bound
Which clips the world with darkness round.
We'll pass the eyes
Of the starry skies
Into the hoar deep to colonize:
Death, Chaos, and Night,
From the sound of our flight,
Shall flee, like mist from a tempest's might.
And Earth, Air, and Light,
And the Spirit of Might,
Which drives round the stars in their fiery flight;
And Love, Thought, and Breath,
The powers that quell Death,
Wherever we soar shall assemble beneath.
And our singing shall build
In the void's loose field
A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield;
We will take our plan
From the new world of man,
And our work shall be called the Promethean.

“What would he not have done, if ten years more, that will be wasted upon the lives of unprofitable knaves and fools, had been given to him” Was it that more of the beautiful and good, than Nature could spare to one, was incarnate in him, and that it was necessary to rescue it for distribution through the external and internal worlds? How many springs will blossom with his thoughts, how many fair and glorious creations be born of his one extinction!" Thomas Lovell Beddoes