Examine Shelley’s reactions to the politics of England during his time. How does his poetry reflect these realities?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In many respects, Shelley's writing is the result of his perception English society and politics.  It is well documented that during his university studies, Shelley was the target of bullying and intimidation.  Shelley's passionate and intense defense of individual freedom as well as his willingness to challenge authority arises from this experience, forming the basis of Shelley's ideas.  Throughout Shelley's work, there is a primacy placed on the rights of the individual and the criticism of oppression.

From his university days, Shelley's work served as a reaction to the politics of the time period.  Recent scholarship and discovery proves this.  In 2006, a copy of "Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things" was discovered.  This 172- lined poem was intense in its political positions.  It espoused a stance that was anti- monarchy and anti- war, as well as affirming the rights of the individual at all costs.  Through this discovery, it is clear that Shelley's writing was influenced by the conditions around him in England.  Shelley understood that a condition in which a form of social and political tyranny dominated the time. The assertion of individual rights acting as a check against this condition is where his reaction to British politics of the time is evident in Shelley's writing.

This trend is continued in Shelley's published works.  Queen Mab is a statement that demands transformation in social and political realities.  The poem looks at what is and calls for a transformation into what can be. Removing tyranny and demanding for an equality that governs the relationships of individuals are significant elements in the poem that arise from what Shelley sees around him.  The fact that Queen Mab is a heavenly force that presents a vision of what earthly life might be is a reflection of the world that Shelley experiences. Through Queen Mab's vision, Shelley critiques British life around him.  This same criticism against authority is evident in "Ozymandias."  The vision of a broken statue of a leader who once possessed power is something that Shelley sees in all authority.  The authority figures of England at the time are reflected in Ozymandias's broken condition.  The statement of "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair" is a statement against the temporal nature of power and authority.  Shelley envisions such a reality as a result of his view of leadership around him.  For Shelley, all authority and leadership suffers from this condition.  Constructing his poem as such a stinging rebuke against authority claims is a reflection of what he sees around him in England.  Shelley never strayed from the child who experienced silence and abuse at the hands of authority when he was a youth at university.  The same tenets that he saw within bullying and intimidation were realities he saw in all political misappropriation of power in England.  The experiences found their way into Shelley's work and thought.

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