Shelley, Percy Bysshe (Poetry Criticism)
Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792–1822
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Victor and The Hermit of Marlow) English poet, essayist, dramatist, and novelist. See also The Cenci Criticism and Percy Bysshe Shelley Literary Criticism.
Shelley was a major poet of the English Romantic period. His foremost works, including The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, Adonais, and The Triumph of Life, are recognized as leading expressions of radical thought written during the Romantic age, while his odes and shorter lyrics are considered among the greatest in the English language.
Born in Horsham, Sussex, Shelley was educated at University College, Oxford. Before the age of twenty he had published two Gothic novels, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, and two collections of verse, Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire—written with his sister—and Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, coauthored with his Oxford friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg. In 1811 Shelley and Hogg were expelled from Oxford for publishing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, an event that estranged him from his family and left him without financial means. Later that year he eloped with Harriet Westbrook, a schoolmate of his sister. During the next three years Shelley and Harriet were actively involved in political and social reform in Ireland and Wales, with Shelley writing radical pamphlets in which he set forth his views on liberty, equality, and justice. In 1814 Shelley remarried Harriet in England to ensure the legality of their union and the legitimacy of their children. Weeks later, however, he fell in love with Mary Godwin, the daughter of the radical English philosopher William Godwin and his first wife, the feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. Shelley and Mary eloped to Europe, accompanied by Mary's stepsister, Jane (Claire) Clairmont. On their return, Shelley entered into a financial agreement with his family that ensured him a regular income. When Harriet declined to join his household as a "sister," he provided for her and their two children, but continued to live with Mary. In 1816 Shelley, Mary, and Claire traveled to Lake Geneva to meet with the poet Lord Byron. Shelley returned to England in the fall, and shortly thereafter Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park. Shelley then legalized his relationship with Mary and sought custody of his children, but the Westbrook family successfully blocked him in a lengthy lawsuit. Citing his poem Queen Mab, in which he denounced established society and religion in favor of free love and atheism, the Westbrooks convinced the court that Shelley was morally unfit for guardianship. In 1818, motivated by ill
health, financial worries, and the fear of losing custody of his and Mary's two children, Shelley relocated his family to Italy. Renewing his friendship with Byron, who was also living in Italy, Shelley became part of a circle of expatriots known as the "Satanic School" because of their defiance of English social and religious conventions and promotion of radical ideas in their works. Shelley and Mary remained in Italy until Shelley's death in a boating accident off the coast of Lerici in 1822.
Shelley's first mature work, Queen Mab, was printed in 1813, but not distributed due to its inflammatory subject matter. It was not until 1816, with the appearance of Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude, and Other Poems—a visionary and semi-autobiographical work—that he earned recognition as a serious poet. Shelley's next lengthy work, Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City, is an account of a bloodless revolution led by a brother and sister. It was immediately suppressed by the printer because of its controversial content, and Shelley subsequently revised the work as The Revolt of Islam, minimizing its elements of incest and political revolution. In 1819 Shelley wrote two of his most ambitious works, the verse dramas Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci. In Prometheus Unbound—which is usually regarded as his masterpiece—Shelley transformed the Aeschylean myth of Prometheus into an allegory on the origins of evil and the possibility of regenerating nature and humanity through love. The Cenci differs markedly from Prometheus Unbound in tone and setting. Shelley based this tragedy on the history of a sixteenth-century Italian Count who raped his daughter and was in turn murdered by her. Although Shelley hoped for a popular success on the English stage, his controversial treatment of the subject of incest outraged critics, preventing the play from being produced. One of Shelley's best-known works, Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, was written in 1821 as a tribute to Shelley's contemporary, Keats. In the same year, Shelley wrote Epipsychidion, in which he chronicled his search for ideal beauty through his relationships with women. Shelley's last work, The Triumph of Life, was left unfinished at his death. Despite its fragmentary state, many critics consider The Triumph of Life a potential masterpiece and evidence of a pessimistic shift in Shelley's thought. In addition to his long poems and verse dramas, Shelley wrote numerous short lyrics that have proved to be among his most popular works, among them "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," "Ode to the West Wind," and "Ode to the Skylark."
The history of Shelley's critical reputation has been characterized by radical shifts. During his lifetime his work was frequently censured because of his atheism and unorthodox philosophy, as well as widespread rumors about his personal life. Those few critics who voiced their admiration of his talents were ironically responsible for further inhibiting his success by causing him to be associated in the public mind with the despised "Cockney School" of poets belittled by John Gibson Lockhart and others in Blackwood's Magazine. Nevertheless, Shelley was known and admired by many of his contemporaries, including Byron, Keats, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. Critics in the late nineteenth century for the most part ignored Shelley's radical politics, celebrating instead the spiritual and aesthetic qualities of his poetry. In the Victorian age he was highly regarded as the poet of ideal love, and the Victorian notion of the poet as a sensitive, misunderstood genius was modeled largely after Shelley. His works, however, again fell into disfavor around the turn of the century. Many critics objected to his seemingly vague imagery, nebulous philosophy, careless technique, and, most of all, his apparent intellectual and emotional immaturity. In the late 1930s Shelley's reputation began to revive as scholars came to recognize the complexity of his philosophy. Modern commentators have generally focused on his imagery, use of language, and technical achievements, in addition to his exploration of the political and social phenomena of his time.
Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire [as Victor, with Elizabeth Shelley] 1810
Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson [with Thomas Jefferson Hogg] 1810
Queen Mab 1813
Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude, and Other Poems 1816
"Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" 1817; published in periodical The Examiner
Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century 1818; also published in revised form as The Revolt of Islam, 1818
The Cenci (verse drama) 1819
Rosalind and Helen: A Modern Eclogue, with Other Poems 1819
Prometheus Unbound, with Other Poems (verse drama and poetry) 1820
Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats 1821
Hellas (verse drama) 1822
"Julian and Maddalo" 1824; published in Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (poetry and verse drama) 1824
The Triumph of Life 1824; published in Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley
"The Witch of Atlas" 1824; published in Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley
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SOURCE: "Shelley as a Lyric Poet," in Fraser's Magazine, Vol. 20, July, 1879, pp. 38–53.
[In the following essay, originally presented as a lecture at the theater of the Museum at Oxford, Shairp comments on Shelley's lyrics, which he considers intensely personal in nature.]
The effort to enter into the meaning of Shelley's poetry is not altogether a painless one. Some may ask, Why should it be painful? Cannot you enjoy his poems merely in an aesthetic way, take the marvel of their aërial movement and the magic of their melody, without scrutinising too closely their meaning or moral import? This, I suppose, most of my hearers could do for themselves, without any comment of mine. Such a mere surface, dilettante way of treating the subject would be useless in itself, and altogether unworthy of this place. All true literature, all genuine poetry, is the direct outcome, the condensed essence, of actual life and thought. Lyric poetry for the most part is—Shelley's especially was—the vivid expression of personal experience. It is only as poetry is founded on reality that it has any solid value; otherwise it is worthless. Before, then, attempting to understand Shelley's lyrics I must ask what was the reality out of which they came—that is, what manner of man Shelley was, what were his ruling views of life, along what lines did his thoughts move?
Those who knew Shelley best speak of the...
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SOURCE: "Percy Bysshe Shelley," in Poets: The Interpreters of Their Age, George Bell & Sons, 1892, pp. 300–11.
[In the following excerpt, Swanick discusses Shelley's concern with social reform as reflected in his verse.]
Possessed by a spirit of implacable hostility to oppression and intolerance, under all their manifestations, Shelley, like Byron, may be regarded, under one aspect of his genius, as representing the destructive temper of the Revolution. Both believed in the ultimate triumph of [French] Democracy. Byron has recorded his conviction that "There will be bloodshed like water, and tears like mist, but that the people will conquer in the end"; nevertheless, while holding this opinion theoretically, he does not appear to have been cheered by any vision of a brighter future;—with him the spirit of revolt is predominant.
Shelley, on the contrary, having adopted, with passionate earnestness, the underlying principles of the Revolution, especially that of universal brotherhood, and cherishing unswerving faith in the coming Millennium, proclaimed, through the medium of impassioned verse, the final regeneration of mankind through righteousness, patient endurance, gentleness and love. This faith in the ultimate triumph of Right over Wrong, of Truth over Error, and of Love over Hatred, became one of the ruling and inspiring passions of his life, and hence he may perhaps be not...
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SOURCE: "Shelley," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 100, No. 3, September, 1907, pp. 347–56.
[Symons was a critic, poet, dramatist, short story writer, and editor who first gained notoriety in the 1890s as an English decadent. Eventually, he established himself as one of the most important critics of the modern era. Symons provided his English contemporaries with an appropriate vocabulary with which to define the aesthetic of symbolism in his book The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899); furthermore, he laid the foundation for much of modern poetic theory by discerning the importance of the symbol as a vehicle by which a "hitherto unknown reality was suddenly revealed. " In the following essay, Symons provides an overview of the philosophy behind Shelley's verse.]
"I have the vanity to write only for poetical minds," Shelley said to Trelawny, "and must be satisfied with few readers." "I am, and I desire to be, nothing," he wrote to Leigh Hunt, while urging him to "assume a station in modern literature which the universal voice of my contemporaries forbids me either to stoop or to aspire to." Yet he said also, "Nothing is more difficult and unwelcome than to write without a confidence of finding readers"; and, "It is impossible to compose except under the strong excitement of an assurance of finding sympathy in what you write." Of the books which he published during his lifetime, some...
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SOURCE: "Shelley's View of Poetry: A Lecture," in The Albany Review, Vol. 11, February, 1908, pp. 511–30.
[In the following essay, which was originally presented as a lecture, Bradley comments on Shelley's adherence in his work to the poetics he set out in his essay Defence of Poetry.]
The ideas of Wordsworth and of Coleridge about poetry have often been discussed and are familiar. Those of Shelley are much less so, and in his eloquent exposition of them there is a radiance which almost conceals them from many readers. I wish, at the cost of all the radiance, to try to see them and show them rather more distinctly. Even if they had little value for the theory of poetry, they would still have much as material for that theory, since they allow us to see something of a poet's experience in conceiving and composing. And, in addition, they throw light on some of the chief characteristics of Shelley's own poetry.
His poems in their turn form one of the sources from which his ideas on poetry are to be gathered. We have also some remarks in his letters and in prose pieces not devoted to this subject. We have the prefaces to those of his works which he himself published. And lastly, we have the Defence of Poetry. This essay was written in reply to an attack on the poetry of the time by Shelley's friend Peacock,—not a favourable specimen of Peacock's writing. The Defence, we can...
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SOURCE: "Platonism in Shelley," in Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, Vol. 4, 1913, pp. 72–100.
[In the following excerpt, Winstanley discusses the Platonic elements in Shelley's works.]
Shelley was by nature one of the most studious of all English poets; from his Oxford days onwards Greek was his favourite reading and for Plato he had a natural affinity of mind. Hogg says of him:
It is no exaggeration to affirm that, out of the twenty-four hours, he frequently read sixteen…. Few were aware of the extent and still fewer of the profundity of his reading; in his short life and without ostentation he had in truth read more Greek than many an aged pedant…. A pocket edition of Plato, of Plutarch, of Euripides, without interpretation or notes … was his ordinary companion, and he read the text straightforward for hours.
Shelley's intellectual attitude and development can be best understood if we remember that he found his sustenance mainly in two types of authors; in the Materialist writers who prepared the way for the French Revolution—D'Alembert, Helvétius, Voltaire, Cabanis, &c.,—and in the Greek tragedians and Plato.
There is, of course, an enormous difference between the scientific agnosticism of the eighteenth century and the idealism of Plato; in his youth Shelley does not...
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SOURCE: "Shelley: Or the Poetic Value of Revolutionary Principles," in Winds of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926, pp. 155–85.
[Santayana was a Spanish-born philosopher, poet, novelist, and literary critic. His earliest published works were the poems of Sonnets, and Other Verses (1894). Although Santayana is regarded as no more than a fair poet, his facility with language is one of the distinguishing features of his later philosophical works. Written in an elegant, non-technical prose, Santayana's major philosophical work of his early career is the five-volume Life of Reason (1905–06). These volumes reflect their author's materialist viewpoint applied to such areas as society, religion, art, and science, and, along with Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923) and the four-volume Realms of Being (1927–40), put forth the view that while reason undermines belief in anything, an irrational animal faith suggests the existence of a "realm of essences" which leads to the human search for knowledge. Late in his life Santayana stated that "reason and ideals arise in doing something that at bottom there is no reason for doing." "Chaos," he wrote earlier, "is perhaps at the bottom of everything." In the following excerpt, Santayana provides an overview of the major philosophical tenets that inform Shelley's poetry.]
It is possible to advocate...
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SOURCE: "Prometheus Unbound," in The Spectator, Vol. 150, No. 5464, March 17, 1933, pp. 366–67.
[Yeats was an Irish poet, playwright, and essayist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The leading figure of the Irish Renaissance, Yeats was also an active critic of his contemporaries' work. His critical essays appeared initially in the Dial magazine and were collected posthumously in Essays and Introductions (1961). Commentators observe that Yeats judged the works of others according to his own poetic values of sincerity, passion, and vital imagination. In the following essay, Yeats provides a personal account of the influence of Shelley's work.]
When I was a young man I wrote two essays calling Shelley's dominant symbol the Morning Star, his poetry the poetry of desire. I had meant to explain Prometheus Unbound, but some passing difficulty turned me from a task that began to seem impossible. What does Shelley mean by Demo-gorgon? It lives in the centre of the earth, the sphere of Parmenides, perhaps, in a darkness that sends forth "rays of gloom" as "light from the meridian sun"; it names itself "eternity." When it has succeeded Jupiter, "the supreme of living things," as he did Saturn, when he and it have gone to lie "henceforth in darkness," Prometheus is set free, nature purified. Shelley the political revolutionary expected miracle, the Kingdom of God in the...
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SOURCE: "Revaluations (VIII): Shelley," in Scrutiny, Vol. 4, No. 2, September, 1935, pp. 150–80.
[Leavis was an influential twentieth-century English critic. His methodology combined close textual criticism with predominantly moral and social concerns; however, Leavis was not interested in the individual writer per se, but rather with the usefulness of his or her art in the scheme of civilization. In the following essay, Leavis discusses several notable critical attacks on Shelley's style.]
If Shelley had not received some distinguished attention in recent years (and he has been differed over by the most eminent critics) there might, perhaps, have seemed little point in attempting a restatement of the essential critical observations—the essential observations, that is, in the reading and appreciation of Shelley's poetry. For they would seem to be obvious enough. Yet it is only one incitement out of many when a critic of peculiar authority, contemplating the common change from being 'intoxicated by Shelley's poetry at the age of fifteen' to finding it now 'almost unreadable,' invokes for explanation the nature of Shelley's 'ideas' and, in reference to them, that much-canvassed question of the day, 'the question of belief or disbelief:
It is not so much that thirty years ago I was able to read Shelley under an illusion which experience has dissipated, as that...
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SOURCE: "The Inconsistency of Shelley's Alastor" in ELH, Vol. 13, No. 4, December, 1946, pp. 291–98.
[In the following essay, Jones attributes the contradictions in Shelley's Alastor to a shift in his philosophy.]
The logical inconsistency of Alastor has been the subject of analysis and of some debate, but thus far there has been no satisfactory explanation of how and why Shelley produced the inconsistency and then defended it in an even more inconsistent preface. If the problem can be solved, it is worth the trouble, for on its solution depends not only an understanding of the poem itself but of related passages in later poems.
The poem is inconsistent in that the early part of it represents the Poet as meriting punishment (presumably an early death), while the last lines praise him without qualification as the highest conceivable type. Because the Poet has lived in "self-centered seclusion" while eagerly and happily pursuing knowledge, "sweet human love" is offended by his disregard of humanity, and, to punish him, sends to him a vision of a veilèd maid, whom he instantly desires so ardently that his life is soon brought to an end by his ceaseless but hopeless search for her. Though in the concluding lines Shelley might be expected to drive his lesson home, and to reveal how the Poet deserved his doom, he does quite the opposite. He laments in a high strain...
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SOURCE: "'Prometheus Bound' and 'Prometheus Unbound,'" in PMLA, Vol. 64, No. 1, March, 1949, pp. 115–33.
[In the following essay, Weaver compares Prometheus Unbound with its Greek predecessor, Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus.]
Shelley's Prometheus Unbound in many ways might be considered the most significant and characteristic of his works. Yet in this drama the poet himself has pointed out his indebtedness to the Prometheus Bound of Æschylus Able scholars, in turn, have examined the relationship between the English and the Greek plays. Over half a century ago Vera D. Scudder published her study, and in 1908 Richard Ackermann brought out his critical commentary. Among others, W. J. Alexander and A. M. D. Hughes, in editing their selections from the poems of Shelley, noted the parallels between his work and that of Æschylus In more recent times, Carl Grabo has gone beyond the study of Greek-English parallels, and Newman Ivey White in the notable twenty-second chapter of his Shelley has enriched our understanding of Prometheus Unbound. Still one may hope by concentrating on the problem to give fuller meaning to the action of the mind of Æschylus upon that of Shelley as together they face tyranny and pain.
It is in his Preface to the drama that Shelley comments on his choice of the Greek myth. His first sentence is significant. "The Greek...
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SOURCE: "The Figure of the Poet in Shelley," in ELH, Vol. 35, No. 4, December, 1968, pp. 566–90.
[Chernaik is an American-born English author and educator. In the following essay, she discusses the autobiographical and symbolic importance of the recurring poet figure in Shelley's verse.]
If there is a single image which draws together the most problematic aspects of Shelley's art, it is the recurrent figure of the frail Poet, pale of hue and weak of limb, consecrated to his youthful vision of Beauty but incapable of realizing or recreating it, driven at last to death by unassuageable desire for he knows not what. His literary associations vary from poem to poem, but the unsympathetic reader (and most readers at the present time fall into this camp), noting the resemblances between the fictional heroes of Alastor and The Revolt of Islam, and the "idealized" self-portraits of Adonais and Epipsychidion, inevitably takes each appearance of the Poet to be inflated autobiography, the romantic selfprojection of a poet whose actual frailty is only too well established by contemporary accounts of his susceptibility to fainting fits, nervous seizures, visions and hallucinations.
One influential school of criticism applies to the figure of the poet terms like "shrill," "hysterical," "self-pitying," "immature." Behind these terms lies the assumption that there is no...
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Cameron, Kenneth Neill, and Reiman, Donald H., eds. Shelley and His Circle, 1773–1822. 8 vols. to date. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961-.
Provides bibliographical and critical material on Shelley, Mary Shelley, Byron, Hunt, and Peacock.
Dunbar, Clement. A Bibliography of Shelley Studies: 1823–1950. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, vol. 32. New York: Garland Publishing, 1976, 320 p.
A guide to Shelley studies dating from his death to 1950.
Keats-Shelley Journal. New York: Keats-Shelley Association of America, 1952-.
An annual publication devoted to studies on Keats, Shelley, Byron, and their circles. A detailed bibliography is included in the periodical.
Blunden, Edmund. Shelley: A Life Story. London: Collins, 1946, 320 p.
A popular biography.
Carey, Gillian. Shelley. Literature in Perspective, edited by Kenneth Grose. London: Evans Brothers, 1975, 160 p.
An introductory survey of Shelley's life and works.
Hogg, Thomas Jefferson. The Life of Percy Bysshe...
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