Percy Bysshe Shelley

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How does Shelley handle the concept of the sublime in his poetry?

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The concept of the sublime in Shelley's poetry refers to the way that nature is above and beyond man and represents concepts such as eternal beauty and also power that shows at once the frailty of man and also his ability to learn and commune with nature. If there is a difference in Shelley's presentation of the sublime, it is the way that he, as opposed to Wordsworth, presents nature as a force that is utterly indifferent to man and contains the power to destroy as well as the power to inspire. Note, for example, the way that the West Wind is presented in Shelley's famous poem, "Ode to the West Wind":

The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh hear!
 
Shelley's presentation of the elevating powers of nature therefore does not present nature as just being about beautiful scenes involving daffodils and clouds, but it is a celebration of the raw power of nature which exposes man's frailty and inherent fragility. Note the way that the woods and blooms grow "gray with fear" at the coming of the powerful West Wind, which elsewhere in the poem is characterised by its dual role of "Destroyer and preserver."
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How does Shelley introduce and handle the concept of the sublime in his poetry? Analyze its presence in two or more of his poems.

The sublime is a concept in romantic poetry that applies to the description of nature and how man comprehends the realm of experience that cannot be easily defined or measured. The sublime in Romantic poetry therefore applies to the way that contemplating nature heightens man's understanding of himself and the world and his place in it. Shelley was a Romantic poet whose understanding of the sublime was quite dark, as his poems paint a picture of nature as being powerful and ruthless, exposing the frailty of man and man's lack of power. Consider, for example, how this view is expressed through the presentation of nature in "Ode to the West Wind":

The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear

The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear

And tremble and despoil themselves--O hear!

The West Wind is described in terms that emphasise its power and majesty, making even other parts of nature "grow grey with fear" at its arrival. The sublime, or transcendent experience, is thus described in a way that highlights man's place in the world as being subject to such natural forces and recognising his own frailty. Note how this is also picked up in "Ozymandias":

Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Again, nature is presented as an infinitely powerful entity who has the ability to wipe out and erase entire civilisations through its might. Part of the sublime therefore is understanding how in nature Shelley saw reflected mankind's ephemeral existence and limited role in the world. The might and majesty of nature as presented in his work points towards man's lack of power and inherent fragility when faced with the might of nature.

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