Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.
Powered by Campus Explorer
All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
26 June, 2013
Outlines of English and American Literature|
Percy Bysshe Shelley
by Long, William J.
|The career of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is,
in comparison with that of Byron, as a will-o'-the-wisp to a
meteor. Byron was of the earth earthy; he fed upon coarse food,
shady adventures, scandal, the limelight; but Shelley
Seemed nourished upon starbeams, and the stuff
Of rainbows and the tempest and the foam.
He was a delicate child, shy, sensitive, elflike, who wandered
through the woods near his home, in Sussex, on the lookout for
sprites and hobgoblins. His reading was of the wildest kind; and
when he began the study of chemistry he was forever putting
together things that made horrible smells or explosions, in
expectation that the genii of the Arabian Nights would rise
from the smoke of his test tube.
A Young Rebel
At Eton the boy promptly rebelled against the brutal fagging
system, then tolerated in all English schools. He was presently in
hot water, and the name "Mad Shelley," which the boys gave him,
followed him through life. He had been in the university (Oxford)
hardly two years when his head was turned by some book of shallow
philosophy, and he printed a rattle-brained tract called "The
Necessity of Atheism." This got him into such trouble with the Dons
that he was expelled for insubordination.
The Wind and the Whirlwind
Forthwith Shelley published more tracts of a more rebellious kind.
His sister Helen put them into the hands of her girl friend,
Harriet Westbrook, who showed her belief in revolutionary theories
by running away from school and parental discipline and coming to
Shelley for "protection." These two social rebels, both in the
green-apple stage (their combined age was thirty-five), were
presently married; not that either of them believed in marriage,
but because they were compelled by "Anarch Custom."
After some two years of a wandering, will-o'-the-wisp life, Shelley
and his wife were estranged and separated. The young poet then met
a certain William Godwin, known at that time as a novelist and
evolutionary philosopher, and showed his appreciation of Godwin's
radical teaching by running away with his daughter Mary, aged
seventeen. The first wife, tired of liberalism, drowned herself,
and Shelley was plunged into remorse at the tragedy. The right to
care for his children was denied him, as an improper person, and he
was practically driven out of England by force of that public
opinion which he had so frequently outraged or defied.
Life is a good teacher, though stern in its reckoning, and in Italy
life taught Shelley that the rights and beliefs of other men were
no less sacred than his own. He was a strange combination of hot
head and kind heart, the one filled with wild social theories, the
other with compassion for humanity. He was immensely generous with
his friends, and tender to the point of tears at the thought of
suffering men,--not real men, such as he met in the streets (even
the beggars in Italy are cheerful), but idealized men, with
mysterious sorrows, whom he met in the clouds. While in England his
weak head had its foolish way, and his early poems, such as
Queen Mab, are violent declamations. In Italy his heart had
its day, and his later poems, such as Adonais and
Prometheus Unbound, are rhapsodies ennobled by Shelley's
love of beauty and by his unquenchable hope that a bright day of
justice must soon dawn upon the world. He was drowned (1822) while
sailing his boat off the Italian coast, before he had reached the
age of thirty years.
The Poetry of Shelley
In the longer poems of Shelley there are two
prominent elements, and two others less conspicuous but more important. The
first element is revolt. The poet was violently opposed to the existing
order of society, and lost no opportunity to express his hatred of Tyranny,
which was Shelley's name for what sober men called law and order. Feeding
his spirit of revolution were numerous anarchistic theories, called the new
philosophy, which had this curious quality: that they hotly denied the old
faith, law, morality, as other men formulated such matters, and fervently
believed any quack who appeared with a new nostrum warranted to cure all
The second obvious element in Shelley's poetry is his love of beauty, not
the common beauty of nature or humanity which Wordsworth celebrated, but a
strange "supernal" beauty with no "earthly" quality or reality. His best
lines leave a vague impression of something beautiful and lovely, but we
know not what it is.
Less conspicuous in Shelley's poems are the sense of personal loss or grief
which pervades them, and the exquisite melody of certain words which he
used for their emotional effect rather than to convey any definite meaning.
Like Byron he sang chiefly of his own feelings, his rage or despair, his
sorrow or loneliness. He reflected his idea of the origin and motive of
lyric poesy in the lines:
Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song,--
an idea which Poe adopted in its entirety, and which Heine expressed in a
sentimental lyric, telling how from his great grief he made his little
Aus meinen groszen Schmerzen
Mach' ich die kleinen Lieder.
Hardly another English poet uses words so musically as Shelley (witness
"The Cloud" and "The Skylark"), and here again his idea of verbal melody
was carried to an extreme by Poe, in whose poetry words are used not so
much to express ideas as to awaken vague emotions.
All the above-named qualities appear in Alastor (the Spirit of
Solitude), which is less interesting as a poem than as a study of Shelley.
In this poem we may skip the revolt, which is of no consequence, and follow
the poet in his search for a supernally lovely maiden who shall satisfy his
love for ideal beauty. To find her he goes, not among human habitations,
but to gloomy forests, dizzy cliffs, raging torrents, tempest-blown
seashore,--to every place where a maiden in her senses would not be. Such
places, terrible or picturesque, are but symbols of the poet's soul in its
suffering and loneliness. He does not find his maiden (and herein we read
the poet's first confession that he has failed in life, that the world is
too strong for him); but he sees the setting moon, and somehow that pale
comforter brings him peace with death.
In Prometheus Unbound Shelley uses the old myth of the Titan who
rebelled against the tyranny of the gods, and who was punished by being
chained to a rock. [Footnote: The original tragedy of Prometheus
Bound was written by Ęschylus, a famous old Greek dramatist. The same
poet wrote also Prometheus Unbound, but the latter drama has been
lost. Shelley borrowed the idea of his poem from this lost drama.] In this
poem Prometheus (man) is represented as being tortured by Jove (law or
custom) until he is released by Demogorgon (progress or necessity);
whereupon he marries Asia (love or goodness), and stars and moon break out
into a happy song of redemption.
Obviously there is no reality or human interest in such a fantasy. The only
pleasurable parts of the poem are its detached passages of great melody or
beauty; and the chief value of the work is as a modern example of Titan
literature. Many poets have at various times represented mankind in the
person of a Titan, that is, a man written large, colossal in his courage or
power or suffering: Ęschylus in Prometheus, Marlowe in
Tamburlaine, Milton in Lucifer, of Paradise Lost, Goethe in
Faust, Byron in Manfred, Shelley in Prometheus
Unbound. The Greek Titan is resigned, uncomplaining, knowing himself to
be a victim of Fate, which may not be opposed; Marlowe's Titan is bombastic
and violent; Milton's is ambitious, proud, revengeful; Goethe's is cultured
and philosophical; Byron's is gloomy, rebellious, theatrical. So all these
poets portray each his own bent of mind, and something also of the temper
of the age, in the character of his Titan. The significance of Shelley's
poem is in this: that his Titan is patient and hopeful, trusting in the
spirit of Love to redeem mankind from all evil. Herein Shelley is far
removed from the caviling temper of his fellow rebel Byron. He celebrates a
golden age not of the past but of the future, when the dream of justice
inspired by the French Revolution shall have become a glorious reality.
His Best Poems
These longer poems of Shelley are read by the few; they are too vague, with
too little meaning or message, for ordinary readers who like to understand
as well as to enjoy poetry. To such readers the only interesting works of
Shelley are a few shorter poems: "The Cloud," "To a Skylark," "Ode to the
West Wind," "Indian Serenade," "A Lament," "When the Lamp is Lighted" and
some parts of Adonais (a beautiful elegy in memory of Keats), such
as the passage beginning, "Go thou to Rome." For splendor of imagination
and for melody of expression these poems have few peers and no superiors in
English literature. To read them is to discover that Shelley was at times
so sensitive, so responsive to every harmony of nature, that he seemed like
the poet of Alastor,
A fragile lute, on whose harmonious strings
The breath of Heaven did wander.
The breath of heaven is constant, but lutes and strings are variable
matters of human arrangement. When Shelley's lute was tuned to nature it
brought forth aerial melody; when he strained its strings to voice some
social rebellion or anarchistic theory it produced wild discord.