Percy Bysshe Shelley

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In addition to his dramas, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote essays of considerable power and has long been recognized as one of England’s greatest poets. His first published work, however, was the thoroughly undistinguished gothic novel Zastrozzi: A Romance (1810), which was followed later in the same year by the equally unimpressive St. Irvyne: Or, The Rosicrucian (mistakenly dated 1811 on the title page). Also appearing in 1810 were Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire, a collaboration with his sister Elizabeth which, despite its title, included plagiarized material, and Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, a collection of six poems purportedly by the madwoman who had attempted, in 1786, to assassinate George III.

Of considerably greater significance was the appearance in 1811 of The Necessity of Atheism, a pamphlet written by Shelley and his Oxford friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, and which caused both to be expelled from the university. Having painfully established his credentials as a freethinker, Shelley then published two pamphlets, An Address to the Irish People (1812) and Proposals for an Association of . . . Philanthropists (1812), and an anonymous broadside, Declaration of Rights (1812), which further manifested his extreme liberalism. Another production of 1812, A Letter to Lord Ellenborough, expressed Shelley’s support for freedom of the press with such passionate eloquence that it was quickly suppressed.

Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem, whose 2,305 lines were accompanied by 118 pages of notes, was printed in 1813 but was too radical in content for the printer to risk public sale. Instead, copies were circulated privately, and this private dissemination was eventually supplemented by the appearance of pirated editions. In addition, a revision of a part of the poem appeared as The Daemon of the World in the 1816 volume Alastor: Or, The Spirit of Solitude and Other Poems. At about this time, Shelley also planned to publish a number of his shorter poems, but his plans misfired, and the collection, referred to as The Esdaile Notebook, remained unpublished until 1964.

The previously mentioned Alastor appeared in February of 1816 and was Shelley’s first significant attempt to gain public recognition as a poet. The volume’s title poem concerns the destruction of an artistic young man who succumbs to the lure of an unattainable ideal, a temptation to which Shelley himself was highly susceptible. Intricately symbolic in content and abstract in theme, Alastor is stylistically consistent with much of the poetry of Shelley’s great maturity. The year 1816 also witnessed the writing of the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc,” two of his finest lyrics.

In 1817, with A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote Throughout the Kingdom and An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte (only the former of which is known with certainty to have been published during his lifetime), Shelley brought to a close his career as a political pamphleteer. Political themes continued to be of great importance in his poetry, however, as the title of his next major poem, The Revolt of Islam (1818), suggests. A narrative of the struggles of Laon and Cythna, The Revolt of Islam is a vision of selfless revolution, revolution shorn of the vengefulness that produced the Reign of Terror, but revolution ultimately, if gloriously, defeated.

Rosalind and Helen: A Modern Eclogue, with Other Poems was published in 1819, and though Rosalind and Helen itself is not among Shelley’s more notable works, the volume also included the considerably more successful “Ozymandias” and “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills.” Two other poems of approximately this same period, Prince Athanase ,...

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a reworking of theAlastor theme, and the slightly later Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation, an attempt by Shelley to distill the philosophical differences between himself and his famous friend, George Gordon, Lord Byron, appeared first in Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1824).

Two poems of 1819 that were also published posthumously are The Mask of Anarchy (1832), inspired by the Peterloo Massacre, and Peter Bell the Third (1839), a parody of William Wordsworth’s Peter Bell (1819). In addition, the years 1819-1820 produced “Ode to the West Wind,” “To a Skylark,” “The Sensitive Plant,” and “The Cloud,” all of which were included in Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, with Other Poems (1820). “The Indian Serenade,” of 1819; the Letter to Maria Gisborne and The Witch of Atlas, both of 1820; and “When the Lamp Is Shattered” and The Triumph of Life, both of 1822, were contained in the posthumous 1824 volume, only the 1819 poem having appeared during Shelley’s lifetime. The Witch of Atlas and The Triumph of Life, the latter of which Shelley was working on during the days preceding his death, are presented in the intricate symbolic mode characteristic of Shelley’s most distinctive poetry.

Two of Shelley’s poetic masterworks, Epipsychidion (1821) and Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821), remain to be mentioned. The former, inspired by Shelley’s acquaintance with Teresa Viviani, whose father had confined her to a convent school during the months preceding her marriage, is an attempt to define humanity’s spiritual essence, its epipsyche. The latter, written after the death of John Keats, is one of the most beautiful elegies in the English language.

Finally, a great many of Shelley’s letters and a number of his more important essays have been published since his death. Among the latter are “A Defence of Poetry,” included in Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations, and Fragments (1840), “An Essay on Christianity,” contained in Shelley Memorials (1859), and the separately printed A Philosophical View of Reform (1920).


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Percy Bysshe Shelley was long a lover of drama but not always a lover of the theater. Under the influence of Thomas Love Peacock and Leigh Hunt, however, he appears to have overcome much of his natural distaste for theatrical extravagance, and after a number of enjoyable experiences in London, he continued his attendance at plays and operas during his years in Italy. Still, unlike Lord Byron, who acted on more than one occasion in amateur stage productions and served for a time on the Drury Lane Committee of Management, Shelley knew drama from the point of view of the avid reader and occasional spectator, not from the perspective of the practical man of the theater. The strengths and weaknesses of most of his dramatic works, effective—even magnificent—in the study but inappropriate for the stage, are consistent with this indirect knowledge of stagecraft, but the undeniable dramatic power of one particular play, The Cenci, suggests that, if he had lived longer, Shelley might have become the dramatic genius that England during the Romantic era so sadly lacked.

Very early in his literary career, Shelley is said to have attempted dramatic collaborations with his sister Elizabeth and with a friend, Andrew Amos, but what appear to be the first surviving dramatic fragments are a handful of lines written in Italy in 1818 for a play to have been entitled “Tasso.” According to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her husband, at about this same time, was also thinking of composing a biblical drama based on the Book of Job, no farfetched project when one considers that Byron was about to undertake Cain: A Mystery (pb. 1821). If Thomas Medwin, Shelley’s cousin and biographer, is to be believed, the plan for Charles the First was a product of 1818 as well, though the writing of this promising fragment was deferred to 1819 and thereafter. The only dramatic project of 1818 which Shelley ultimately completed, however, was Prometheus Unbound.

As Mary Shelley relates in her notes to the play, Prometheus Unbound was begun during a period in which Shelley was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Greek tragedies, especially with “the sublime majesty of Aeschylus,” which “filled him with wonder and delight.” He was also aware, as later critics have pointed out, of the uses of the Promethean myth by his poetic contemporaries, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Byron. He was familiar, too, with recent experiments, including Goethe’s Faust (pb. 1808, 1833) and Byron’s Manfred (pb. 1817), in a highly symbolic mental drama with which his own great talents were wonderfully compatible. The result of this amalgam of influences was Shelley’s composition, during 1818 and 1819, of one of literature’s great lyric dramas, an exultant statement of Shelley’s faith in the ultimate triumph of justice and love over hatred and oppression.

Despite its poetic beauty, however, Prometheus Unbound is not a practical stage play. Shelley had long considered himself unsuited for composing such a play, but while he was at work on Prometheus Unbound, he was introduced to a subject on which he based one of the few nineteenth century tragedies in English worthy of continued theatrical attention, The Cenci. He had been shown a rare manuscript in which the brutal history of the Cenci family was recorded, and he had been drawn to this tale of incest and murder because it so perfectly illustrated themes that had long obsessed him. As they occur in the play, the savagery of Count Francesco Cenci exemplifying the corrupting influence of absolute, oppressive power, and the vengefulness of his victimized daughter, Beatrice, with its terrible spiritual consequences, illustrate the destructive results of surrendering to hatred. In a sense, the joyous conclusion of Prometheus Unbound and the tragic conclusion of The Cenci are obverse images of the same truth, that fortitude and forgiveness, rather than violent retaliation, are the proper responses to injustice.

Oedipus Tyrannus was begun on August 24, 1820, a year after Shelley had finished The Cenci and soon after he had completed Prometheus Unbound. The year before, he had translated Euripides’ Kyklps (c. 421 b.c.e.; Cyclops, 1782) and had begun the fragment Charles the First. Both appeared in Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, as did his translations of scenes from Pedro Calderón de la Barca ’s El mágico prodigioso (1637) and Goethe’s Faust. An additional fragment, an untitled work centering on an Indian enchantress, was also included in the 1824 volume. Among the above, Shelley had the highest hopes for Charles the First, a tragedy which was to trace the complexities of the Cromwell uprising. Unfortunately, the subject presented so many problems that he gave it up by June, 1822.

The Cenci is the only play by Shelley with a substantial stage history, the others having received no more than rare experimental treatment. Even The Cenci, in fact, was long neglected, having been performed for the first time in London on May 7, 1886, under the sponsorship of the Shelley Society. During the next forty years, productions occurred in Paris (1891), Coburg (1919), Moscow (1919-1920), Prague (1922), London (1922 and 1926), Leeds (1923), Frankfurt am Main (1924), and New York (1926). The London production of 1922, with Dame Sybil Thorndike as Beatrice, was the most instrumental in establishing The Cenci’s fitness for the stage.

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Except for A Defence of Poetry (1840), Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essays are not classics of English prose, but they have influenced writers as diverse as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and Bertrand Russell, and they are very useful as glosses on the poetry. “On Love,” for example, introduces Shelley’s concept of the “antitype,” the perfect mate, uniquely suited to one’s intellect, imagination, and sensory needs, a “soul within our soul,” but purged of all one finds unsatisfactory within oneself. Love is defined as the attraction to the antitype. Shelley movingly describes this longing for a mirror image of perfection:If we reason, we would be understood; if we imagine, we would that the airy children of our brain were born anew within another’s; if we feel, we would that another’s nerves should vibrate to our own, that the beams of their eyes should kindle at once and mix and melt into our own, that lips of motionless ice should not reply to lips quivering and burning with the heart’s best blood. This is Love.

Love, as the attraction toward refined idealism, figures as well in Shelley’s theory of the formative power of poetry.

In A Defence of Poetry, he argues that “the great secret of morals is Love.” Through identification with the “beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own,” one becomes moral through the process of empathizing. Love is thus an act of the sympathetic imagination. Because poetry, and literature in general, enhances and exercises the ability to empathize, it is an agent of tremendous potential for the moral regeneration of humankind. It goes without saying that the poet thus has a high office in the government of morality; he is Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislator.” By this phrase, Shelley did not primarily mean that poets are unacknowledged for the good they do, but rather that they themselves were not and could not be aware of the power of their beauty. Shelley’s poet is not in control of his power, for, in the language of his great metaphor of the creative process,the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness: this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.

Hence, poets do not control their inspiration—in fact, when writing begins, the most intense phase of inspiration has already passed; they express more than they understand; they feel less than they inspire; they are “the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.”


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One of the six greatest English Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley is arguably the most versatile stylist among all English poets. His genius for versification enabled him to employ an astonishing variety of stanzaic patterns and poetic forms with equal facility. He has two basic styles, however—the sublime or rhapsodic, heard in such poems as Alastor, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts (pb. 1820), and Adonais; and the urbane or conversational style, found in poems such as Julian and Maddalo, Letter to Maria Gisborne, and Epipsychidion. In this latter mode, especially in the standard pentameter line with couplets, Shelley grew increasingly conservative prosodically, achieving a control almost neoclassical in balance and poise. Lyrical, unremitting intensity, however, is the defining quality of Shelley’s verse.

Discussion Topics

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Compare the imagery of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” with that of John Keats’s “To Autumn” (1819). What do the differences suggest about the poets’ attitudes toward nature?

What is a lyrical drama? How is it meant to be experienced?

Is Prometheus Unbound a rejection of Aeschylus’s tragedy?

How does Shelley’s Adonais, a pastoral elegy, illustrate aspects of coming to terms with death that exist in life today?

In A Defence of Poetry, what is Shelley’s understanding of the relationship between reason and imagination?

Investigate the numerous verse forms, some of them very difficult, which Shelley employed.

How does Shelley’s appreciation of nature differ from that of William Wordsworth?


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Bieri, James. Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Biography. 2 vol. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004-2005. A well-reviewed valuable addition to Shelley scholarship. Examines the poet’s life through analysis of his cultural, literary, personal and romantic contexts. Includes bibliography and index.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Percy Bysshe Shelley. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. An excellent selection of some of the most important works on Shelley published since 1950. Bloom’s introduction, an overview of Shelley’s poetry, is highly recommended.

Blumberg, Jane. Byron and the Shelleys: The Story of a Friendship. London: Collins & Brown, 1992. Blumberg describes the friendship among George Gordon, Lord Byron, and the Shelleys. Bibliography and index.

Cronin, Richard. Shelley’s Poetic Thoughts. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. An incisive study of Shelley’s thought within his poems and his manner of handling language. Cronin scrutinizes poetic forms as they manage realism and fantasy, elegy and dream. Contains notes and an index.

Duff, David. Romance and Revolution: Shelley and the Politics of a Genre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Duff examines Romanticism and politics in the work of Shelley. Bibliography and index.

Everest, Kelvin, ed. Percy Bysshe Shelley: Bicentenary Essays. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1992. A collection of biographical and critical essays on the life and works of Shelley. Includes bibliographical references.

Hamilton, Paul. Percy Bysshe Shelley. Tavistock: Northcote House in association with the British Council, 2000. Hamilton’s biography provides the story of Shelley’s life and criticism and interpretation of his works.

Höhne, Horst. In Pursuit of Love: The Short and Troublesome Life and Work of Percy Bysshe Shelley. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. A biography of Shelley offering insights into his life and work. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1975. This major biography presents Shelley as a sinister and sometimes cruel artist of immense talent. Holmes claims new answers to questions about Shelley’s Welsh experiences and about his paternity of a child born in Naples. Critical readings of Shelley’s writings are less valuable than their biographical context. Contains illustrations, bibliography, notes, and an index.

Lewis, Linda M. The Promethean Politics of Milton, Blake, and Shelley. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. Lewis examines the Greek myth of Prometheus in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the works of William Blake. Bibliography and index.

Simpson, Michael. Closet Performances: Political Exhibition and Prohibition in the Dramas of Byron and Shelley. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998. Simpson examines the role of politics and censorship in the plays of Lord Byron and Shelley. Bibliography and index.

Sperry, Stuart M. Shelley’s Major Verse: The Narrative and Dramatic Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. This excellent study of Queen Mab, Alastor, The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, The Cenci, The Witch of Atlas, Epipsychidion, and The Triumph of Life attempts to synthesize philosophical, psychological, and biographical approaches to Shelley.

Wasserman, Earl R. Shelley: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971. Wasserman’s massive, detailed readings of virtually all Shelley’s major poems have been extremely influential. Wasserman emphasizes Shelley’s metaphysical skepticism and discusses his conceptions of existence, selfhood, reality, causation, and their relation to transcendence. Some of the readings are very dense and may be intimidating for the beginning student, but no serious student of Shelley can ignore them.

Wheatley, Kim. Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. Examines Shelley’s reception in major British periodicals and the poet’s idealistic passion for reforming the world.


Critical Essays