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 she departs in a magic boat with a robotic hermaphrodite that she has fashioned. Together, they travel the world,...
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