Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab begins with French, Latin, and Greek epigraphs from, respectively, eighteenth century satirist Voltaire, first century b.c.e. poet Lucretius, and third century b.c.e. physicist Archimedes. After the epigraphs, which refer to crushing the infamous, eradicating superstition, and moving the world, respectively, Shelley includes a sixteen-line poem, “To Harriet *****,” a work dedicated to Harriet Westbrook Shelley, his first wife, whom he praises as his inspiration.
Writing without rhyme, except for one accidental couplet, and often using blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), Shelley finished Queen Mab, but not its notes, in February, 1813. By the end of June he had printed Queen Mab and its notes in a well-manufactured volume, possibly with the help of his publisher Thomas Hookham, who chose not to have his name on the work because he believed it violated the law forbidding blasphemy. Instead of actually publishing the volume, Shelley sent about 70 of the 250 printed copies to those he thought would like the theme, having first cut out his name and address as the printer and, in many instances, having also removed the short dedicatory poem. Despite the technically private distribution of Queen Mab, it had become so well known by 1817 that it figured in the Chancery Court’s decision to deny Shelley the custody of his two children by his first wife, whom he had left in 1814 in favor of Mary Godwin and who had drowned herself in December, 1816.
To the poem itself, Shelley had attached seventeen endnotes, each devoted to a separate passage in the poem. Several of the notes are so long that they have footnotes themselves. The notes, which also feature the quotes of other authors—in Greek, Latin, French, and English—include topics such as astronomy, war, economics, Necessity, Christianity, time, and vegetarianism.
In 1815, parts of Queen Mab had appeared in the initial issue of Theological Inquirer, and in February, 1816, Shelley had published a significant revision of the first two cantos of Queen Mab as the long poem The Daemon of the World. However, Queen Mab did not reach the public in its entirety until 1821, when two pirated editions appeared. Afterward, despite legal danger, more unauthorized editions came out, including one (1832) small enough to fit into a pocket.
Popular with readers who sympathized with Shelley’s ideas, Queen Mab became virtual scripture for Chartism, the influential British political reform movement that began in 1838. Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx noted the popularity of the poem among Chartists, and the work later influenced British Communists.
Shelley intended Queen Mab to subvert the British system of church and state. The name “Mab” was known to many readers in the early nineteenth century as that of the fairy who brings dreams, according to Mercutio in William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597), and as that of a figure like Mother Goose in volumes of children’s stories published in the eighteenth century. Shelley chose the name because he thought it would cover his revolutionary message with innocence and would appeal to children of the aristocracy, whose parents, although they would not read the book, might find it superficially appealing not...
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