Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Percy Bysshe Shelley Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Percy Bysshe Shelley mutedly noted in his preface to Prometheus Unbound that he had “what a Scotch philosopher terms, ’a passion for reforming the world.’” One might think that this would have endeared his work at least to the reading public left of center and to later readers who value the reforming spirit in humankind. Yet Shelley was almost able to name his readers, they were so few, and today, of the six major poets who dominate the canon of British Romanticism—William Blake,William Wordsworth,Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Byron, Keats, and Shelley—it is still Shelley who remains the least popular. For one reason or another, and though Shelley will always have a cadre of eloquent apologists, dedicated scholars, and brilliant explicators, he is usually out of favor with a significant group of readers. He has been criticized for bad thinking, for bad writing, and for bad living. Devaluations of his thought and poetry have largely been overcome, but this last—especially when made by sensitive feminist readers who find his narcissistic theory of love stupidly, if not heartlessly, destructive to the women in his life—is difficult to refute, if one grants its relevance to his art.

Shelley’s theme of self-destructiveness leads to his poetry’s most brilliant moments, but perhaps the weakness in Shelley’s use of the antitype motif is that it fails to recognize even the possibility that the mate—the woman—exists in her own right, and that her likeness to the fiction of the poet’s imagination might not be the best or safest evidence of her worth. In Lord Byron’s Manfred (1817), the concept of the antitype is also used, but Byron is critical of the theme from the woman’s point of view—Manfred has destroyed his lover, Astarte, with this dangerously egotistical love and madly strives to win her forgiveness. Shelley seems incapable of such a critique of his most important theme; therein may lie the weakness in his work. Except in this respect, Shelley was not in the least simpleminded concerning the problem of reforming the world according to his standards. Shelley desired more than the world could ever offer; he knew it, but he could not stop trying to close the gap between the ideal and the real, the vision and the fact. So powerful is his honesty that tension pervades his poetry, idealism playing against skepticism, irony hedging assertion. He ardently believed that humans were perfectible, if they would only will it. At its most optimistic, his poetry seeks to arouse the reader’s will to strive for perfection; at its most pessimistic, it is the poet’s private struggle with the desire to escape through death.

Julian and Maddalo

One might take a poem of balanced opposites as a synecdochic introduction to Shelley’s thought and art. Julian and Maddalo presents the issues, the imagery that typically embodies them, and the quest to dissolve division in nature, society, and personal life. The conversants in this urbane, sophisticated debate are Julian, a thin disguise for Shelley, and Maddalo, or Lord Byron. Julian, the preface suggests, is the idealist, “passionately attached to those philosophical notions which assert the power of man over his own mind, and the immense improvements of which, by the extinction of certain moral superstitions, human society may be yet susceptible.” Maddalo is the card-carrying cynic, and the tragedy from Julian’s point of view is that Maddalo is one of the few who might be capable of changing the world, if he would only will it. It is Maddalo’s weakness to be proud; he does not think the world worth the effort. A maniac also enters the poem as a character who was destroyed through unrequited love. Finally, Maddalo’s little daughter is the ever-present, romantic image of humankind’s potential.

The poem opens with a vision of harmony. Julian and Maddalo have been riding along the Lido of Venice, a waste of a beach, at sundown, and Julian responds to the correspondence he senses...

(The entire section is 6,625 words.)