Percy Bysshe Shelley Shelley, Percy Bysshe (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792-1822

(Also wrote under pseudonyms of Victor and The Hermit of Marlow.) English poet, essayist, playwrite, translator, and novelist. The following entry presents recent criticism of Shelley. See also, The Cenci Criticism.

Shelley is regarded as a major English Romantic poet. His foremost works, including Prometheus Unbound, Adonais, The Revolt of Islam, and The Triumph of Life, are recognized as leading expressions of radical thought written during the Romantic age, while his odes and shorter lyrics are often considered among the greatest in the English language. In addition, his essay A Defence of Poetry is highly valued as a statement on the moral importance of poetry and of poets, whom he calls “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” While Shelley's significance to English literature is today widely acknowledged, he was one of the most controversial literary figures of the early nineteenth century.

Biographical Information

Shelley was born the eldest son of Sir Timothy and Elizabeth Shelley, landed aristocrats living in Horsham, Sussex. He was educated first at Syon House Academy, then Eton, and finally University College, Oxford. Before the age of twenty he had published two Gothic novels, Zastrozzi (1810) and St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian (1811), and two collections of verse, Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire (1810), written with his sister, and Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholsen (1810), coauthored with his Oxford friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg. Shelley's 1811 publication of The Necessity of Atheism caused him to be expelled from Oxford, an event that estranged him from his family and left him without financial means. Nonetheless, later that year he eloped to Scotland with Harriet Westbrook, a sixteen-year-old schoolmate of his sister. For the next three years Shelley was actively involved in political and social reform in Ireland and Wales, writing radical pamphlets in which he set forth his views on liberty, equality, and justice. The year 1814 was a pivotal one in Shelley's personal life. Although their marriage was faltering, he remarried Harriet in England to ensure the legality of their union and the legitimacy of their children. Weeks later, however, he fell in love with Mary Godwin, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the radical English philosopher William Godwin and his first wife, the feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. Shelley and Mary eloped in Europe, and upon their return continued to live together, though Shelley provided for Harriet and his two children. In the summer of 1816 Shelley traveled to Lake Geneva to meet with Lord Byron. The two men developed an enduring friendship that proved an important influence on the work of both men. Shortly after Shelley's return to England in the fall, Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park. Shelley subsequently sought custody of his children, but the Westbrook family successfully blocked him in a lengthy lawsuit. After a brief residence at Marlow in 1817, during which he enjoyed the company of Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, John Keats, and other literary figures, Shelley relocated his family to Italy. There they moved frequently, spending time in Leghorn, Venice, Naples, Rome, Florence, Pisa, and Lerici. The years in Italy were productive for Shelley, and saw the publication of many of his greatest works of poetry. Shortly before his thirtieth birthday Shelley and a friend, Edward Williams, drowned when their boat capsized in a squall off the coast of Lerici. Shelley's body was cremated on the beach in a ceremony conducted by his friends Byron, Hunt, and Edward John Trelawny. His ashes were subsequently buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome.

Major Works

Much of Shelley's writing reflects the events and concerns of his life. His passionate belief in reform, the equality of the sexes, and the powers of love and imagination are frequently expressed in his poetry. Shelley's first mature work, Queen Mab, was printed in 1813, but not distributed due to its inflammatory subject matter. In it Shelley denounced established society and religion in favor of free love and atheism. The visionary and sometimes autobiographical poem Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude (1816) describes the experiences of the Poet who, rejecting human sympathy and domestic life, is pursued by the demon Solitude. An imaginative account of a bloodless revolution led by a brother and sister, Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century (1818) deals with the positive power of love, the complexities of good and evil, and ultimately, a spiritual victory through martyrdom. The subsequently revised edition of the work as The Revolt of Islam minimized its elements of incest and political revolution. The verse drama Prometheus Unbound (1820) combines myth, political allegory, psychology, and theology. In the work Shelley transformed the Aeschylean myth of Prometheus, the fire-giver, into an allegory on the origins of evil and the possibility of regenerating nature and humanity through love. Shelley based The Cenci on the history of a sixteenth-century Italian noble family. After the evil Count Cenci rapes his daughter, Beatrice, she determines to murder him, seeing no other means of escape from continued violation, and is executed for parricide. Drawing on the formal tradition of elegiac verse, Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821) laments Keats's early death and, while rejecting the Christian view of resurrection, describes his return to the eternal beauty of the universe. Epipsychidion (1821) chronicles Shelley's search for ideal beauty through his relationships with women. Among his shorter poems, the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc” focus on Shelley's belief in an animating spirit, while “Ode to the West Wind” examines opposing forces in nature. “Ode to Liberty,” “Sonnet: England in 1819,” and The Masque of Anarchy feature several of his most enduring political themes. Shelley's last work, The Triumph of Life, left unfinished at his death, describes the relentless march of life that has destroyed the aspirations of all but the sacred few who refused to compromise to worldly pressures.

Critical Reception

The history of Shelley's critical reputation has been characterized by radical shifts. During his lifetime he was generally viewed as a misguided or even depraved genius; critics frequently praised portions of his poetry in passing and deplored at length his atheism and unorthodox philosophy. Nevertheless, Shelley was known and admired by his great contemporaries; Byron, Keats, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey regarded his works with varying degrees of sympathy and approval. Shelley was regarded as the prototype of the misunderstood poetic genius during the Victorian era, while serious interest in his works began to revive in the late 1930s as scholars came to recognize the complexity of his style, philosophy, and major themes. In examining his style commentators have generally focused on his imagery, use of language, and technical achievements. The importance of neo-platonism, the occult, the Bible, the French Revolution, and Gothicism, as well as the works of individual philosophers—Wollstonecraft, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Godwin—to Shelley's thought and writing has been explored by other critics. Attention has also been devoted to recurring themes in Shelley's work. His doctrines of free love and sexual equality have particularly attracted commentary on the poet. Recent criticism of Shelley's works has generally been marked by increasing respect for his abilities as a poet and his surprisingly modern philosophy. Overall, Shelley remains a central figure in English Romanticism. His major works are respected as challenging credos of revolutionary philosophy, and his odes and shorter lyrics are widely known for their stylistic mastery. Furthermore, his Defence of Poetry stands as a powerful statement of the Romantic ideal of art and the artist.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire [as Victor, with Elizabeth Shelley] (poetry) 1810

Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholsen [with Thomas Jefferson Hogg] (poetry) 1810

Zastrozzi (novel) 1810

The Necessity of Atheism (essay) 1811

St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian (novel) 1811

An Address to the Irish People (essay) 1812

A Declaration of Rights (essay) 1812

Queen Mab (poetry) 1813

A Refutation of Deism (dialogue) 1814

Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude, and Other Poems (poetry) 1816

An Address to the People on the Death of Princess Charlotte [as The Hermit of Marlow] (essay) 1817

A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote [as The Hermit of Marlow] (essay) 1817

“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” (poetry) 1817

Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century [also published in revised form as The Revolt of Islam] (poetry) 1818

The Cenci (verse drama) 1819

Rosalind and Helen: A Modern Eclogue, with Other Poems (poetry) 1819

Prometheus Unbound, with Other Poems (verse drama and poetry) 1820

Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (poetry) 1821

Epipsychidion (poetry) 1821

Hellas (verse drama) 1822

“Julian and Maddalo” (poetry) 1824

Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (poetry and verse drama) 1824

The Triumph of Life (unfinished poetry) 1824

“The Witch of Atlas” (poetry) 1824

The Masque of Anarchy (poetry) 1832

A Defence of Poetry (essay) 1840

Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations, and Fragments by Percy Bysshe Shelley. 2 vols. (essays, letters, translations, and prose) 1840

The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (poetry, verse dramas, and essays) 1847

The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 10 vols. (poetry, verse dramas, essays, and translations) 1924-30

The Letters. 2 vols. (letters) 1964

The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 2 vols. (poetry) 1972-75

John B. Pierce (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Mont Blanc’ and Prometheus Unbound: Shelley's Use of the Rhetoric of Silence,” in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. XXXVIII, 1989, pp. 103-26.

[In the following essay, Pierce studies the workings of silence, signification, and absence in “Mont Blanc” and Prometheus Unbound.]

“Nothing.” The pivotal moment in King Lear which initiates its tragic action begins from this word. In this “Nothing” the stark contrast of two views of the unspoken word meet. Lear asks his favorite daughter, Cordelia, to express her love for him that she may draw a third of his kingdom “more opulent than your sisters” (1.i.86).1 Her reply,...

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Stephen C. Behrendt (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Beatrice Cenci and the Tragic Myth of History,” in History & Myth: Essays on English Romantic Literature, edited by Stephen C. Behrendt, Wayne State University Press, 1990, pp. 214-34.

[In the following essay, Behrendt explores the political theme and moral crisis depicted in Shelley's verse drama The Cenci.]

History and myth converge in Shelley's deeply political tragedy The Cenci, whose compelling protagonist, Beatrice Cenci, dramatically embodies that crisis which occurs in human affairs when an intolerable situation of perceived injustice and oppression appears to offer no viable legitimized options for action. Voicing the instinctive desire...

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Laura Claridge (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Bifurcated Female Space of Desire: Shelley's Confrontation with Language and Silence,” in Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism, edited by Laura Claridge and Elizabeth Langland, University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, pp. 92-109.

[In the following essay, Claridge investigates Shelley's use of a female poetic voice in Alastor, The Cenci, and Epipsychidion.]

In The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope sets out to rape Belinda/Arabella of her threatening excess of meaning—the artifice out of which she creates herself—and to make her into a virgin, a blank page. Paradoxically, that is, accession to eighteenth-century male...

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Allen Dunn (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Out of the Veil of Ignorance: Agency and the Mirror of Disillusionment,” in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 1-21.

[In the following essay, Dunn examines Alastor as “a study in moral agency.”]

Following Shelley's lead in his preface to the poem, I propose to read Alastor as a study in moral agency. This may sound surprising since the poem is often criticized for its solipsism or, worse, for displaying the symptoms of pathological narcissism. However, the apparent pathology of Alastor's narrator and of the visionary poet he describes stems from a moral dilemma which Shelley inherits from moral...

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Donna Richardson (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Dark Idolatry of Self’: The Dialectic of Imagination in Shelley's Revolt of Islam,” in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. XL, 1991, pp. 73-98.

[In the following essay, Richardson characterizes The Revolt of Islam as “a profoundly dialectical treatment of heroism and imagination.”]

The Revolt of Islam is, paradoxically, both Shelley's longest and least anthologized poem. It has numerous aesthetic infelicities that partly explain this neglect, notably Shelley's choice of Southeyan romance as a genre. But the most frequent and serious criticism levelled at the poem is that it contains a fundamental thematic weakness. Although in...

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Michael O’Neill (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘And All Things Seem Only One’: The Shelleyan Lyric,” in Percy Bysshe Shelley: Bicentenary Essays, edited by Kelvin Everest, D. S. Brewer, 1992, pp. 115-31.

[In the following essay, O’Neill surveys the complex character of Shelley's lyric poetry.]


‘It is only when under the overruling influence of some one state of feeling, either actually experienced, or summoned up in almost the vividness of reality by a fervid imagination, that he writes as a great poet’.1 J. S. Mill's observation about Shelley, which he thought held particularly true of the poet's ‘lyrical poems’,2 may seem to be borne out...

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Christine Berthin (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Prometheus Unbound, or Discourse and Its Other,” in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. XLII, 1993, pp. 128-41.

[In the following essay, Berthin approaches Prometheus Unbound as a figural and revolutionary text.]

Besides literal meanings, poetry generates lateral meanings, by-products which spoil the perfection of the linguistic system. The verbal order is constantly undermined by visual or musical patterns that, anamorphically, dislocate and relocate the political message of the text.

“Didactic poetry is my abhorrence; nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in verse.”1...

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Shelley Wall (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Baffled Narrative in Julian and Maddalo,” in New Romanticisms: Theory and Critical Practice, University of Toronto Press, 1994, pp. 52-68.

[In the following essay, Wall focuses on the dynamics of narrative suppression in Shelley's poem Julian and Maddalo.]


I rode one evening with Count Maddalo
Upon the bank of land which breaks the flow
Of Adria towards Venice: a bare strand
Of hillocks, heaped from ever-shifting sand …
Is this …

(ll. 1-4, 7)

Thus begins Shelley's Julian and Maddalo. The dichotomy between Julian's simultaneous freedom of movement—on horseback...

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Barry Magarian (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Indeterminacy of Shelley's Adonais: Liberation and Destruction,” in The Keats-Shelley Review, No. 9, Spring, 1995, pp. 15-36.

[In the following essay, Magarian analyzes Adonais, and considers its ambivalent confrontation with the problem of death.]

Adonias's (1821) treatment of death makes the poem peculiarly provisional in terms of its emotional and intellectual outlook. The subject of death is initially one that fosters a mood of consolatory lamentation. It ends by precipitating and pressing forward a view of imaginative and spiritual liberation. The latter view is intimately connected with the glimpse the poem offers at the end...

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Deborah Elise White (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Seashore's Path: Shelley and the Allegorical Imperative,” in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 51-79.

[In the following essay, White probes the didactic/allegorical quality of Shelley's works.]

Throughout Shelley's poetic career, his writings reflect on, engage with, and struggle against a particular mode of that discursive predicament more generally called allegory: didacticism. For Shelley, the ethical dimensions of poetry should reach beyond particular referential effects—the empirically determined moralities of time and place—the better to encompass the source that grounds them. In classic romantic fashion he names that...

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K. D. Verma (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Vision of “Love's Rare Universe”: A Study of Shelley's Epipsychidion, University Press of America, Inc., 1995, pp. 1-12.

[In the following introduction to a full-length interpretation of Shelley's Epipsychidion, Verma evaluates the poem in the context of Shelley's theory of the imagination.]

I am the eye with which the Universe
Beholds itself and knows it is divine;
All harmony of instrument or verse,
All prophecy, all medicine is mine,
All light of art or nature;—to my song
Victory and praise in its own right belong.

“Hymn of Apollo”


Epipsychidion, written...

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Barry Magarian (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shelley's The Cenci: Moral Ambivalence and Self-Knowledge,” in Keats-Shelley Review, No. 10, Spring, 1996, pp. 181-203.

[In the following essay, Magarian highlights themes of moral indeterminacy and self-knowledge in The Cenci.]


Shelley's play The Cenci (1819) has, at its heart, a journey into the centre of the human psyche which precipitates its heroine's fall from grace into moral and emotional myopia. During this journey some of the deepest of human fears are revealed in the person of Beatrice as she is conducted towards the ‘darkness of the abyss’, as Shelley puts it in the Preface to the play.1...

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Michael Erkelenz (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Genre and Politics of Shelley's Swellfoot the Tyrant,” in The Review of English Studies, Vol. XLVII, No. 188, November, 1996, pp. 500-20.

[In the following essay, Erkelenz views Shelley's Swellfoot the Tyrant as both an adaptation of Aristophanes's work and a critique of contemporaneous British politics.]

In her well-known note on Oedipus Tyrannus; Or Swellfoot the Tyrant, Mary Shelley describes how Percy Shelley first came to conceive of the poem. While reading aloud the ‘Ode to Liberty’ (more likely, in fact, his just completed ‘Ode to Naples’), he soon found himself ‘riotously accompanied by the grunting of a quantity...

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John F. Murphy (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Time's Tale: The Temporal Poetics of Shelley's Alastor,” in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. XLV, 1996, pp. 132-55.

[In the following essay, Murphy discusses the sense of narrative time in Shelley's Alastor.]


While Shelley's reputation as a poet has often rested upon an estimate of his talents as a lyricist, critics of the last decade have complicated this judgment by increasingly focusing on the poet's engagement with that literary mode most conspicuously at odds with lyricism: narrative. In this latter group the work of Tilottama Rajan stands out as the most extensive and theoretically ambitious to date. Her recent essay,...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Foot, Paul. “Shelley's Revolutionary Year.” In Ambient Fears: Random Access 2, edited by Pavel Büchler and Nikos Papastergiadis, pp. 31-45. London: Rivers Oram Press, 1996.

Discusses Shelley's attempts to publish the radical, political poetry comprising his Philosophical View of Reform.


An, Young-Ok. “Beatrice's Gaze Revisited: Anatomizing The Cenci.” InCriticism XXXVIII, No. 1 (Winter 1996): 27-68.

Offers a feminist reading of The Cenci that probes the “complex operations of violence, law, and desire that intersect with gender issues” in the...

(The entire section is 1316 words.)