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.”
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:
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."
"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:
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.”
Shelley had no poetic preference, style or form. Here is the romantic, joyful Hymn of Pan:
Then there is the stoic of allegorical poem Laon and Cythna on the French Revolution which he renamed as The Revolt of Islam.
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.
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:
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.”
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”
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 lyric poem: The Cloud (1820)
And To a Skylark
And in a symbolic theme of When the Lamp Is Shattered (1824)
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"
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.”
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.
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.
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself:
“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.
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:
Our fourth characteristic is the metaphysical, outer earthly, mysticism
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.
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.
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.
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:
“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