Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Percy Bysshe Shelley World Literature Analysis

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Although he stands accused of sentimentality, wild impulse, and lyrical flights of fancy, Shelley was a deep thinker whose poetry asks and answers the fundamental questions in life: What is the hidden Power behind Nature? What is its moral purpose? Can humans connect with it and be saved from the hard knocks of experience? Rejecting orthodox beliefs, Shelley formulated his own myth to explain the mysteries of the universe.

Shelley’s thinking matured with remarkable rapidity. In a poetic career of scarcely a dozen years, he passed from skeptical materialism to Platonic idealism and a resigned despair. Fascinated with scientific experimentation, Shelley early insisted that belief be based only on what is verified by sensory experience or on what can be logically deduced from it. This materialism led him to deny the claims of religion. His agnostic faith in the human imagination lasted a lifetime. In early writings, he agitated for liberal causes: free expression, vegetarianism, Catholic emancipation, and self-rule for Ireland. He adopted Godwin’s Necessitarianism, a belief that reason will undo the tyranny of class and wealth, ushering in an age of perfection.

Soon after his liaison with Godwin’s daughter began, however, Shelley formed an ideal concept of love that supplanted Necessitarianism. Alastor depicts the poet lured from self-absorbed solitude by a female soul very like his own. Yet the quest is doomed because his soul cannot be embodied in another. In “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and Mont Blanc, he pursues an ideal Spirit of Beauty and an “unseen Power.” The demon of materialism has been expunged, for Shelley has decided that beauty is in neither the beholder nor the object beheld but in the Platonic idea of beauty itself, separate from examples of beauty in nature, available only to the imagination.

In “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills,” the poet, viewing Venice below, contrasts the beauty of nature with the misery of humanity that science cannot comfort. In his mind, he imagines a union with the unseen Power, yet, lacking love, his heart goes unfulfilled. Shelley achieves that personal union with the unseen Power that moves through Nature in “Ode to the West Wind.” As the destructive Autumn gales lift clouds, waves, and leaves before them, the poet prays to the wild Spirit to lift him, too. Being human, however, his connection with the Power is more intimate, for it stimulates his imagination to produce glorious thoughts.

Shelley’s idealistic vision attained its fullest victory in Prometheus Unbound, a myth to explain how love releases the creative imagination from bondage in the self. Jupiter has punished Prometheus by nailing him to a rock. Cut off from his lover, Asia, his powers divided against themselves, he gains wisdom from suffering. Prometheus is renewed as his hatred for Jupiter dwindles to pity. Asia rejoins him, and awesome Demogorgon overthrows Jupiter to release humankind from the tyranny of heaven. Shelley’s apocalypse is at hand: Humankind achieves love, wisdom, power, and goodness. Freedom allows human imagination to enjoy the fourfold excellence that eluded Shelley’s poet-quester. With “The Cloud” and “To a Skylark,” two sublime lyrics from the same period, Shelley again evokes the evanescent Spirit of Beauty and the unseen Power of Nature.

One more victory is granted the poetic imagination in The Witch of Atlas . Created by magic and perfect in beauty, the Witch symbolizes the power of poetry. She emerges from her cave to dispel the illusions of nymphs who think they can dwell amid Nature’s beauties forever. She tells them that such beauties must fade, that even the ocean will dry up like a drop of dew. Then...

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she departs in a magic boat with a robotic hermaphrodite that she has fashioned. Together, they travel the world, overturning political and religious authorities as they fan the flames of human desire. So great is her power that she undoes the doom of death for the most beautiful people whom she finds. Encompassing both sexes in one, her companion finalizes the Alastrian quest, but something is missing: It is an artifact, incapable of loving interrelationship.

Shelley’s vision was turning dark. The optimism of Prometheus Unbound is utterly reversed in The Cenci, with its gory incest, torture, sexual perversion, and murder. In Epipsychidion, the Alastrian quest is revisited. Yet the poet’s high aspiration fails because physical and spiritual love cannot be one and the same. The poem ends with the poet cursing his own words as chains that keep him from scaling the heights of heavenly love. Its broken rhyme scheme suggests an inability of any poem to keep the promises that imagination makes.

Adonais mourns the death of Keats and also Shelley’s own frustrations with human experience in life. The remote and often heartless Power behind Nature never fails to bring the plants back to life in the Spring. Yet it snuffs out a poet’s creative spirit once and for all. This despair pervades Shelley’s final effort, The Triumph of Life, a work dominated by the poetry of Dante in the Purgatorial tone of the whole fragment, down to the terza-rima form of its stanzas. As Dante was guided by Vergil in Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), so Shelley is guided by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the self-deluded high priest of Natural Religion, now hideously deformed and blinded by the glare of the chariot. Among the sorry parade of Life’s victims, they recognize the great artists and most powerful people in history, all of their hopes dashed. Shelley realized that human experience keeps the real and the ideal from uniting. People who strive to do good discover that the means of doing good may actually be far from good. Even a poet discovers that the poem cannot make a dull reader feel the warmth of imagination that the poet felt when first inspired to write it.

In the end, Shelley accepted the fact that compromise and delay would thwart his hopes for a radical reformation of society. He even resigned himself to accepting death as a blessed victory over the cruel injustices of life. Yet he always affirmed his faith in the redeeming transformation of imaginative insight, which can reveal the permanent ideals of truth and beauty and love that make life joyful.

“Ode to the West Wind”

First published: 1820 (collected in Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, 1820)

Type of work: Poem

The poet seeks to unite the powers of his imagination with the wild Spirit that flows through all of Nature.

In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley defies the remote, impersonal character of the unseen Power behind Nature and strives to establish a personal relationship with it. The poem manages to reconcile the poet’s terrific emotional intensity with the elegant, even stately formal pattern of the regular Horatian ode. Using heroic meter (iambic pentameter) throughout, Shelley made each of the five stanzas into a sonnet with four terza-rima tercets and a closing couplet. The poetical effect is rather unlike that of the usual sonnet. Shelley’s interlocking rhymes sweep a reader along like gusts of wind, and the couplet pounds its message home with direct clarity and force.

The first three stanzas, addressed to the wild west wind, praise its irresistible power, marking its effects on all things in nature: clouds in the air, waves on the sea, leaves in the forest, even “the oozy woods which wear the sapless foliage of the ocean.” Poets usually address the mild, warm winds of Spring that bring nature to life, but Shelley confronts the cold, wild “breath of Autumn’s being,” which acts as both destroyer and preserver. The hidden Power behind Nature is not always friendly to humankind. The morality or immorality of its operations may not be discernible. Thus, the poet stands, appropriately, in awe of it. Each of the first three stanzas ends with a plea for the wind to take heed and hear the poet’s prayer.

The fourth stanza turns introspective. The poet wonders whether he might be used as the leaves have been, tossed about and left for dead by the indifferent force. He humbles himself, admitting that his powers have faded since boyhood, when

I would ne’er have strivenAs thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowedOne too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

Then in the final stanza the poet casts off the humility with the simile and claims a more intimate, metaphoric, mythic relationship with the wild Spirit. “Make me thy lyre,” he demands, first to accompany the Power and turn the wind into sweet music, and then boldly to become it, “Be thou me.” The poet has found that “soul out of my soul.” He yokes the great hidden Power to his own imagination to scatter among humankind the glowing spark of his verse “to quicken a new birth.” Thus, the Shelleyan poet becomes the prophet of an apocalyptic revolution to redeem humankind from torpid experience.

Then, suddenly, after such thunderous bursts of emotion, the poem ends as quietly as a sigh with perhaps the finest, most wistful and haunting line in all English poetry, a question: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

Prometheus Unbound

First published: 1820

Type of work: Lyrical drama

A modern myth is made to show how love unleashes creative powers that free humankind from tyranny.

Shelley’s reputation is based on the 1820 volume of verse containing Prometheus Unbound, a lyrical drama on a cosmic scale that presents more fully than any other poem Shelley’s philosophy of life.

In ancient mythology, Prometheus was the smartest of the Titans. He separated humanity from the gods and gave it fire, symbolizing imaginative powers of thought. Jupiter punished him by nailing him to a rock in the Caucasus mountain range. Shelley begins his sequel to Aeschylus’s play Prometheus desmts (date unknown; Prometheus Bound, 1777) with Prometheus still in that predicament after some time has elapsed. The Titan describes his ordeal and tells the hopeful Ione and the faithful Panthea that he has secret knowledge of the time when Jupiter will fall from power. Misery has made Prometheus wise. He has realized that hatred makes one like the object of hate, and thus his bondage is primarily internal, self-imposed, and even within his will to end. His hatred for Jupiter having cooled to mere pity, Prometheus wants to gather his sundered strength, reunite with his beloved Asia, and recall the curse that he had cast upon Jupiter. However, he cannot remember it and Nature is too fearful to utter it, so he summons the Phantasm of Jupiter to repeat it. Once divulged, the curse is repudiated by Prometheus, who declares, “I wish no living thing to suffer pain.” Earth mistakenly thinks Jupiter’s victory is now complete, and Mercury carries that message to Jupiter while Panthea goes in search of Asia. As the first act closes, Prometheus has been regenerated, but the creatures of earth are still slaves to the tyranny of heaven, still split apart by self-hate, blaming themselves for committing sins and abandoning ambitions.

In the five scenes of the second act, Asia learns of Prometheus’s change of heart and sets out on a symbolic journey to rejoin him. She passes through the world of sensuous experience to the higher level of ideal Truth and Beauty. That is the realm of Demogorgon, an awesome deity not named in the classical pantheon but invented by Shelley. Gazing into his cave, Asia beholds the deep Truth and finds it imageless. Only the radiant reflection of her own beauty appears. Demogorgon is beyond the forms and shapes and images of things; utterly fundamental, he is sheer process, the inevitability of change. Asia’s love has stirred him to action. When she asks him the fateful hour of Jupiter’s fall, he responds, “Behold!” This work is no stage play. Shelley has collapsed the familiar dimensions of time and space into an ideal, eternal moment and place within the human mind.

Jupiter opens the third act by confidently declaring his omnipotence. However, his fate is about to be sealed, for it had been prophesied that his son would return to overthrow him at the destined hour, just as he himself had overthrown Saturn. Indeed, that fatal child is Demogorgon, now making his way toward Jupiter’s throne in the Car of the Hour. He arrives and delivers his ultimatum, “Descend, and follow me down the abyss.” Thus, Jupiter is deposed and free will is restored to humankind. Hercules releases Prometheus to rejoin Asia. The rest of the drama surveys the regeneration of humanity and nature in the new Promethean age of perfection. Earth sings out the joys of Shelley’s apocalypse, when Man as one harmonious soul sports gentle and free in the familiar world made newly beautiful by love. The last word belongs to Demogorgon, who professes Shelley’s artistic credo:

To love, and bear; to hope, till Hope createsFrom its own wreck the thing it contemplates;Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;This, like thy glory, Titan, is to beGood, great and joyous, beautiful and free;This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats

First published: 1821

Type of work: Poem

The death of a great poet in youth is pondered by another great poet who soon followed him to an early grave.

Adonais, Shelley’s lamentation on the death of John Keats, has been called the greatest pastoral elegy in English. It belongs to a tradition some twenty-three centuries old stemming from laments by ancient Greek poets Bion and Moschus. Similarly, and like John Milton’s “Lycidas,” Shelley’s elegy contemplates the larger tragic implications of the loss of a gifted poet, which subtracts from the world its most precious asset, genius.

The pastoral elegy is a highly conventional form. Typically, it includes reference to the deceased as a shepherd, the trappings of pagan mythology, the mourning of all nature, a procession of mourners, a contrast between revival in spring and the finality of death, and a praise of immortality. Shelley adapted these elements from tradition but jettisoned the conventional mechanics in a final strophe, an inspired Platonic exaltation. Throughout, the poet employed the elegant Spenserian stanza: two cross-rhymed quatrains in heroic meter with a final Alexandrine, using but three rhymes, ababbcbcc.

Shelley and Keats had met but were not close friends. Learning of his illness, Shelley invited Keats to live with him in Italy, but the arrangements were never completed. Shelley wrote Adonais four months later.

Shelley blamed hostile literary critics for the poet’s death and so enhanced a theme developed elsewhere in his own neglected verse, the mortifying effects on civilization of the common person’s contempt for genius. He depicts the poet as a shepherd whose flocks are “quick Dreams . . . passion-wingèd Ministers of thought,” but after his death and “after their sweet pain/ They ne’er will gather strength, or find a home again.” Thus, the first part of the poem urges all to weep for Adonais, who is dead. (The name is a form of Adonis, the handsome young man loved by Venus and killed by a wild boar and lamented by Bion. It also recalls Adonai, the holy name of God used in place of the ineffable name Yahweh.) Indeed, all nature weeps, so profusely that a mourner can wash the corpse with starry dew. Spring, for grief, throws down her kindling buds, moving the poet to state the central tragedy of the situation: “Ah, woe is me! Winter is come and gone,/ But grief returns with the revolving year.” The gross forms of nature die to be revived in Spring, but the unique creative power of a poet vanishes forever when he dies.

To the funeral come the mountain shepherds, Keats’s poetical friends recognizable among them: Byron, the famous “Pilgrim of Eternity,” Leigh Hunt, “gentlest of the wise,” and Shelley himself,

one frail Form,A phantom among men; companionlessAs the last cloud of an expiring storm. . . . . . . . . . . . . .A pardlike Spirit beautiful and swift—A Love in desolation masked;—a PowerGirt round with weakness.

The critics also come, in the forms of snakes, wolves, beaten hounds, ravens, carrion kites, and vultures. The poet bids “Hot Shame” to burn upon their brows.

Then, in the last seventeen stanzas, Shelley’s whole tone shifts. He bids the reader not to mourn for Adonais, since Death is dead, not he, and Adonais has only awakened from the dream of life. Now made one with Nature, he has become a portion of the loveliness he once made more lovely. Adonais is transformed into a star, radiant and eternal. Shelley contrasts his eternal white radiance with the temporary distortion of life, symbolized by a dome of many-colored glass that stains the white light until Death tramples it to bits. The light of day may eclipse the twinkling stars, as ordinary life may dim the power of genius. Yet death conquers life and frees the eternal Spirit to find pure beauty and love in the abode of the Eternal. In Shelley’s myth, a genius defeated by life wins from death a permanent afterlife.

A Defence of Poetry

First published: 1840

Type of work: Essay

A great Romantic poet explains the essence of poetry to critics who think that it is useless in the modern world.

Shelley wrote A Defence of Poetry as a reply to Thomas Love Peacock’s The Four Ages of Poetry (1820). Peacock thought that poetry grows less relevant as society advances and that Romantic poetry is barbaric and childish. Shelley admitted that some people and ages are less poetical than others, but he argued vehemently that poetry is humanity’s highest mental faculty, relevant to every age. Shelley sees poetry as the power of understanding and imagining new combinations of thought. Thus, it is the source of all knowledge and progress. He rejects small-minded definitions of poetry as word games played with rhymes and meters. Even prose can be poetry inasmuch as it expresses the imagination.

A poet sees a world not yet seen by most people. He grasps order hidden beneath chaos, truth scrambled by superstition, beauty smeared by corruption. Poets create new forms of opinions and action that enable society to progress. Thus, they wield more power in society than politicians and business executives. “Poets,” Shelley declares, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” For example, Dante gave medieval Europe a new Christian myth that made it less violent and more free. Ultimately, poetry enlarges the mental and moral capacities of humankind.

Shelley contrasts poetry with reason. Reason is calculating selfhood; poetry, the impulse toward pleasure and love. “Poetry, and the principle of Self, of which money is the visible incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the world,” he states. For Peacock to insist on poetry serving commerce is to turn everything upside down. Reason is under humanity’s will, but poetry works under an invisible influence, like the wind, which makes coal burn brighter. Similarly, inspiration fans the flame of a poet’s imagination, and he or she writes as if under the direction of an outside force. Such a heated exercise of imagination is, for Shelley, better than the resulting poem, for the poem is necessarily a thing; the poem, however, can impart to others something of the poet’s contact with a new truth.

In an age of commerce or an age of reason, when the unpoetical principle of selfish greed gains ascendancy, even the poets may grow less and less poetical. Yet poetry has the power to flash out again, like “a sword of lightning . . . which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.” Finally, in rebuttal to Peacock’s attacks on Romantic poets, Shelley predicts, rightly, that they will be remembered for their intellectual achievements. What he says of their works is surely true of his own as well, that they are impossible to read “without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words.”


Percy Bysshe Shelley Poetry: British Analysis


Shelley, Percy Bysshe (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)