Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
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...
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Percy Bysshe Shelley was long a lover of drama but not always a lover of the theater. Under the influence of Thomas Love Peacock and Leigh Hunt, however, he appears to have overcome much of his natural distaste for theatrical extravagance, and after a number of enjoyable experiences in London, he continued his attendance at plays and operas during his years in Italy. Still, unlike Lord Byron, who acted on more than one occasion in amateur stage productions and served for a time on the Drury Lane Committee of Management, Shelley knew drama from the point of view of the avid reader and occasional spectator, not from the perspective of the practical man of the theater. The strengths and weaknesses of most of his dramatic works, effective—even magnificent—in the study but inappropriate for the stage, are consistent with this indirect knowledge of stagecraft, but the undeniable dramatic power of one particular play, The Cenci, suggests that, if he had lived longer, Shelley might have become the dramatic genius that England during the Romantic era so sadly lacked.
Very early in his literary career, Shelley is said to have attempted dramatic collaborations with his sister Elizabeth and with a friend, Andrew Amos, but what appear to be the first surviving dramatic fragments are a handful of lines written in Italy in 1818 for a play to have been entitled “Tasso.” According to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her husband, at about this same time, was also thinking of composing a biblical drama based on the Book of Job, no farfetched project when one considers that Byron was about to undertake Cain: A Mystery (pb. 1821). If Thomas Medwin, Shelley’s cousin and biographer, is to be believed, the plan for Charles the First was a product of 1818 as well, though the writing of this promising fragment was deferred to 1819 and thereafter. The only dramatic project of 1818 which Shelley ultimately completed, however, was Prometheus Unbound.
As Mary Shelley relates in her notes to the play, Prometheus Unbound was begun during a period in which Shelley was thoroughly...
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Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
Except for A Defence of Poetry (1840), Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essays are not classics of English prose, but they have influenced writers as diverse as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and Bertrand Russell, and they are very useful as glosses on the poetry. “On Love,” for example, introduces Shelley’s concept of the “antitype,” the perfect mate, uniquely suited to one’s intellect, imagination, and sensory needs, a “soul within our soul,” but purged of all one finds unsatisfactory within oneself. Love is defined as the attraction to the antitype. Shelley movingly describes this longing for a mirror image of perfection:If we reason, we would be understood; if we imagine, we would that the airy children of our brain were born anew within another’s; if we feel, we would that another’s nerves should vibrate to our own, that the beams of their eyes should kindle at once and mix and melt into our own, that lips of motionless ice should not reply to lips quivering and burning with the heart’s best blood. This is Love.
Love, as the attraction toward refined idealism, figures as well in Shelley’s theory of the formative power of poetry.
In A Defence of Poetry, he argues that “the great secret of morals is Love.” Through identification with the “beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person,...
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
One of the six greatest English Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley is arguably the most versatile stylist among all English poets. His genius for versification enabled him to employ an astonishing variety of stanzaic patterns and poetic forms with equal facility. He has two basic styles, however—the sublime or rhapsodic, heard in such poems as Alastor, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts (pb. 1820), and Adonais; and the urbane or conversational style, found in poems such as Julian and Maddalo, Letter to Maria Gisborne, and Epipsychidion. In this latter mode, especially in the standard pentameter line with couplets, Shelley grew increasingly conservative prosodically, achieving a control almost neoclassical in balance and poise. Lyrical, unremitting intensity, however, is the defining quality of Shelley’s verse.
Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Compare the imagery of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” with that of John Keats’s “To Autumn” (1819). What do the differences suggest about the poets’ attitudes toward nature?
What is a lyrical drama? How is it meant to be experienced?
Is Prometheus Unbound a rejection of Aeschylus’s tragedy?
How does Shelley’s Adonais, a pastoral elegy, illustrate aspects of coming to terms with death that exist in life today?
In A Defence of Poetry, what is Shelley’s understanding of the relationship between reason and imagination?
Investigate the numerous verse forms, some of them very difficult, which Shelley employed.
How does Shelley’s appreciation of nature differ from that of William Wordsworth?
Bibliography (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
Bieri, James. Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Biography. 2 vol. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004-2005. A well-reviewed valuable addition to Shelley scholarship. Examines the poet’s life through analysis of his cultural, literary, personal and romantic contexts. Includes bibliography and index.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Percy Bysshe Shelley. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. An excellent selection of some of the most important works on Shelley published since 1950. Bloom’s introduction, an overview of Shelley’s poetry, is highly recommended.
Blumberg, Jane. Byron and the Shelleys: The Story of a Friendship. London: Collins & Brown, 1992. Blumberg describes the friendship among...
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