In addition to his dramas, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote essays of considerable power and has long been recognized as one of England’s greatest poets. His first published work, however, was the thoroughly undistinguished gothic novel Zastrozzi: A Romance (1810), which was followed later in the same year by the equally unimpressive St. Irvyne: Or, The Rosicrucian (mistakenly dated 1811 on the title page). Also appearing in 1810 were Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire, a collaboration with his sister Elizabeth which, despite its title, included plagiarized material, and Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, a collection of six poems purportedly by the madwoman who had attempted, in 1786, to assassinate George III.
Of considerably greater significance was the appearance in 1811 of The Necessity of Atheism, a pamphlet written by Shelley and his Oxford friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, and which caused both to be expelled from the university. Having painfully established his credentials as a freethinker, Shelley then published two pamphlets, An Address to the Irish People (1812) and Proposals for an Association of . . . Philanthropists (1812), and an anonymous broadside, Declaration of Rights (1812), which further manifested his extreme liberalism. Another production of 1812, A Letter to Lord Ellenborough, expressed Shelley’s support for freedom of the press with such passionate eloquence that it was quickly suppressed.
Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem, whose 2,305 lines were accompanied by 118 pages of notes, was printed in 1813 but was too radical in content for the printer to risk public sale. Instead, copies were circulated privately, and this private dissemination was eventually supplemented by the appearance of pirated editions. In addition, a revision of a part of the poem appeared as The Daemon of the World in the 1816 volume Alastor: Or, The Spirit of Solitude and Other Poems. At about this time, Shelley also planned to publish a number of his shorter poems, but his plans misfired, and the collection, referred to as The Esdaile Notebook, remained unpublished until 1964.
The previously mentioned Alastor appeared in February of 1816 and was Shelley’s first significant attempt to gain public recognition as a poet. The volume’s title poem concerns the destruction of an artistic young man who succumbs to the lure of an unattainable ideal, a temptation to which Shelley himself was highly susceptible. Intricately symbolic in content and abstract in theme, Alastor is stylistically consistent with much of the poetry of Shelley’s great maturity. The year 1816 also witnessed the writing of the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc,” two of his finest lyrics.
In 1817, with A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote Throughout the Kingdom and An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte (only the former of which is known with certainty to have been published during his lifetime), Shelley brought to a close his career as a political pamphleteer. Political themes continued to be of great importance in his poetry, however, as the title of his next major poem, The Revolt of Islam (1818), suggests. A narrative of the struggles of Laon and Cythna, The Revolt of Islam is a vision of selfless revolution, revolution shorn of the vengefulness that produced the Reign of Terror, but revolution ultimately, if gloriously, defeated.
Rosalind and Helen: A Modern Eclogue, with Other Poems was published in 1819, and though Rosalind and Helen itself is not among Shelley’s more notable works, the volume also included the considerably more successful “Ozymandias” and “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills.” Two other poems of approximately this same period, Prince Athanase, a reworking of the Alastor theme, and the slightly later Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation, an attempt by Shelley to distill the philosophical differences between himself and his famous friend, George Gordon, Lord Byron, appeared first in Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1824).
Two poems of 1819 that were also published posthumously are The Mask of Anarchy (1832), inspired by the Peterloo Massacre, and Peter Bell the Third (1839), a parody of William Wordsworth’s Peter Bell (1819). In addition, the years 1819-1820 produced “Ode to the West Wind,” “To a Skylark,” “The Sensitive Plant,” and “The Cloud,” all of which were included in Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, with Other Poems (1820). “The Indian Serenade,” of 1819; the Letter to Maria Gisborne and The Witch of Atlas, both of 1820; and “When the Lamp Is Shattered” and The Triumph of Life, both of 1822, were contained in the posthumous 1824 volume, only the 1819 poem having appeared during Shelley’s lifetime. The Witch of Atlas and The Triumph of Life, the latter of which Shelley was working on during the days preceding his death, are presented in the intricate symbolic mode characteristic of Shelley’s most distinctive poetry.
Two of Shelley’s poetic masterworks, Epipsychidion (1821) and Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821), remain to be mentioned. The former, inspired by Shelley’s acquaintance with Teresa Viviani, whose father had confined her to a convent school during the months preceding her marriage, is an attempt to define humanity’s spiritual essence, its epipsyche. The latter, written after the death of John Keats, is one of the most beautiful elegies in the English language.
Finally, a great many of Shelley’s letters and a number of his more important essays have been published since his death. Among the latter are “A Defence of Poetry,” included in Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations, and Fragments (1840), “An Essay on Christianity,” contained in Shelley Memorials (1859), and the separately printed A Philosophical View of Reform (1920).