Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose

Shelley's Poetry and ProseShelley’s Poetry and Prose by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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The Norton Critical Edition, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, contains all of Shelley’s most famous poems long and short, from briefer lyrics like “The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” the “Ode to the West Wind,” and the immortal sonnet about the evanescence of tyranny, “Ozymandias,” to such longer pieces as the bloody Renaissance revenge tragedy The Cenci and the ferocious political protest “The Mask of Anarchy.” I intend below to discuss only a handful of the poet’s major long works.

The critical materials in the back of the book chart the vicissitudes of Shelley’s reception. Following his canonization by Victorian poets like Tennyson, Browning, and Swinburne, a detailed biography in the 1880s damaged his reputation with its disclosures about his personal life: his abandonment of his pregnant first wife, Harriet, who later killed herself; his elopement with the 19-year-old Mary Godwin, the daughter of radicals Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin; and his later estrangement from Mary amid several attractions to other women, until his untimely death by drowning in the Italy to which the young revolutionary had fled to lead a life impossible in conservative England.

The biography occasioned a famous review by Matthew Arnold, who’d already soured on the Romantics in favor of a more measured, classical view of life. Arnold’s irresistibly sarcastic asides throughout the review (“Complicated relationships, as in the Theban story!” “What a set! what a world!” “one feels sickened for ever of the subject of irregular relations”) prepared the way for Shelley’s later dismissal by most of the modernists (except the worshipful Yeats) and their New Critical academic disciples. Shelley was only revived in the second half of the 20th century, most notably by Harold Bloom, who hailed him as an especially lyrical and urbane representative of a visionary Protestant tradition in English poetry going back to Spenser and Milton, that unruly tradition more conservative intellects like Arnold and T. S. Eliot sought to bury.

My own favorite of all Shelley’s writing is not a poem but the prose manifesto, “A Defence of Poetry,” also contained in the Norton edition, which informs Bloom’s later, oft-misunderstood polemics in favor of the Western canon. Written in response to Thomas Love Peacock’s “Four Ages of Poetry,” which argued that poetry was defunct in a scientific age, Shelley replied that the poetic imagination was the imagination tout court, consciousness’s synthesizing drive, alone responsible for all change and progress. If we grant Shelley his perhaps too-convenient redefinition of “poet” to include great philosophers, religious prophets, and political leaders, his defense of qualitative imagination over quantitative reason, which can analyze but not create, has aged very little in an era further gone than his own in what he calls “an unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty.”

Shelley’s literary judgments are stimulatingly severe. For example, he recognizes only three true epic poets—Homer, Dante, and Milton—judging even luminaries like Virgil and Spenser to fall short of his high standard of summing up the poet’s own age and ushering in a new one. He deems poetry superior to all the other arts because its material—language—is most ideal, coming straight from human consciousness without finding its origin in the world, as do the painter’s pigments and the sculptor’s stone; he further argues that all language was invented by poets at the origin of humankind, imaginative artists coining alloyed metaphors out of their perceptions of how one thing related to another:

In the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression. Every original language near to its source is in itself the chaos of a cyclic poem: the copiousness of lexicography and the distinctions of grammar are the works of a later age, and are merely the catalogue and the form of the creations of poetry.

Writing in an age of revolution, himself a radical, Shelley has a progressive vision of history. Plato’s sublime egalitarian idealisms are translated into popular vernacular by Christ, and, after a Dark Age hiatus, conveyed to the High Middle Ages and subsequent Renaissance and Reformation, when (as Shelley tells it) personal slavery was abolished in Europe, women liberated from antique servitude, and religious superstition rocked to its rotten foundations. Unlike today’s progressive intellectuals—and here they should take a lesson—Shelley believes that art improves social life by enlarging the imagination, not by any special effort at moral didacticism:

The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb. A poet therefore would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither.

Borrowing a metaphor from Coleridge, Shelley writes that the poet is less an intentional actor, a rational agent, than an Aeolian harp, an instrument played upon by the wind of the world-spirit; but unlike that Romantic apparatus, the poet can in some measure augment through effort the spiritual effort of which he is the conveyance. On the question of poets’ private character, Shelley hedges, first claiming special virtue for the visionary, attacked as he may be by envious onlookers, then excusing poets’ frankly well-known faults—such vices as money-grubbing, social-climbing, substance abuse, and various sexual offenses—on the grounds that poets are more sensitive than other people and therefore more apt to pursue pleasure. As we’ll see, such special pleading, persuasive or not, enters his poetry as well.

Finally, he defends his own era, presciently enough, since we now see Romanticism as a high period in European literature: “It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words.” His resonant conclusion, summing the argument for imagination as sovereign over human progress, is endlessly quoted to this day: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Bloom judges “Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude” to be Shelley’s first major long poem, surpassing the lengthy utopian vision, “Queen Mab.” “Alastor” is either a cautionary or a ruefully laudatory blank-verse narrative about a poet who traverses the world in quest of his elusive vision. (The poem’s title, ironically supplied by Thomas Love Peacock, refers to the “evil genius” that inspires the poet on his doomed quest.) “Alastor” also contains some of Shelley’s most sublime descriptive writing, even as Bloom—in his introduction to his own 1966 Signet Classics edition of the poetry—allows that “the precisionist or concretist is probably Shelley’s most effective enemy, since everything vital in Shelley’s poetry strains away from the minute particulars of experience”:

Nature’s most secret steps
He like her shadow has pursued, where’er
The red volcano overcanopies
Its fields of snow and pinnacles of ice
With burning smoke, or where bitumen lakes
On black bare pointed islets ever beat
With sluggish surge, or where the secret caves
Rugged and dark, winding among the springs
Of fire and poison, inaccessible
To avarice or pride, their starry domes
Of diamond and of gold expand above
Numberless and immeasurable halls,
Frequent with crystal column, and clear shrines
Of pearl, and thrones radiant with chrysolite.

If there is something solipsistic, no matter how grand, in this inner drama of the lyricist at war with a nature that maddeningly obscures some Platonic beyond, perhaps the drama, with its multiple personae in dialogue, is just the genre to cure it. Shelley’s mythopoeic closet drama Prometheus Unbound, a revisionary sequel to Aeschylus, does not quite fulfill this promise. Its characters are archetypal—Jupiter, the stern and cynical tyrant reigning cruelly over humanity; our titular would-be liberator, suffering in chains and ice; the mysterious Demogorgon, who rises from the depths to overthrow Jupiter as Jupiter overthrew his own Titan parents; and Asia, a deliberately globalized stand-in for Aphrodite, whose transfiguration upon Jupiter’s downfall signals the renewal of the world. Shelley here raises his progressive hopes to the highest visionary verse: “The imagery which I have employed will be found, in many instances, to have been drawn from the operations of the human mind,” he writes in his preface, where he also announces his intention to improve on Milton:

The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs, and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure. In the minds of those who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling it engenders something worse. But Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.

To a more novelistic imagination like my own, there is something ill-advised if not perverse in trying to enhance a literary character by removing depth and complexity. Shelley here falls short of his standard in the “Defence,” obtruding a moral scheme of his own onto the drama and robbing it of tension. When Prometheus, a pacific revolutionary like his vegetarian author, says, “I wish no living thing to suffer pain,” or when he declares, “Yet am I king over myself, and rule / The torturing and conflicting throngs within,” the reader might miss Satan’s greater sense of anguish, loss, and spite from Milton’s epic.

Demogorgon’s rise, accompanied throughout by a chorus of hours, as if time itself meant progressive change, as if all you have to do to be on “the right side of history” is to stand somewhere long enough, is also mightily anti-climactic. Demogorgon mysteriously insists, “the deep truth is imageless”—an ambitious but dangerous credo for a poet. Still, Shelley supplies some unforgettable lines: “See where the child of Heaven with winged feet / Runs down the slanted sunlight of the dawn.”

The drama’s utopian culmination, with all nature, art, and humanity transfigured, is a permanent repository in our poetry of radical hope. Instead of a distorting mirror, contorted by superstition and tyranny, we gain access to heavenly wisdom, transformed into “a sea reflecting love.” “All things had put their evil nature off” and we develop “arts, though unimagined, yet to be.” Our divisions fall away and we become “not men” but “a chain of linked thought / Of love and might to be divided not.”

The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself; just, gentle, wise…

It seems ungrateful to wonder if it’s too good to be true, or to ask, if the world-spirit is so glorious and human potential so fundamentally infinite, then whence came all these ills in the first place? “Original sin” in any literal sense is perhaps a superstition, as the enlightened Shelley would no doubt object, but might it not be a metaphor for something real in our experience? When a chorus of spirits representing human thoughts suggest that even after the revolution a mental mopping-up operation remains necessary, to subdue whatever has been left unregenerate in the psyche—

We’ll pass the eyes
Of the starry skies
Into the hoar deep to colonize;
Death, Chaos and Night,
From the sound of our flight,
Shall flee, like mist from a tempest’s might.

—their word “colonize” reminds us that colonialism, like 20th-century totalitarianism, often also claimed to be acting merely in the interests of progress as it battered down institutions and trampled the recalcitrant indiscriminately and without invitation. While Shelley’s other major play, The Cenci, was written as a potboiler (unsuccessfully, since it was considered too dirty to be staged in England for a century, until modernism’s annus mirabilis of 1922) and as a grisly Jacobean pastiche (“My eyes are full of blood…The beautiful blue heaven is flecked with blood!”), it mixes its advocacy for the overthrow of tyrants, here the domestic tyranny of an incestuous father, with a livelier sense of what Poe will call “the imp of the perverse” wriggling in every human psyche:

I am as one lost in a midnight wood,
Who dares not ask some harmless passenger
The path across the wilderness, lest he,
As my thoughts are, should be—a murderer.

Another longer, famous poem, a cri de coeur in favor of free love, is “Epipyschidion,” perhaps the key to all that is unsavory in the Shelleyan oeuvre. The title is a Greek neologism meaning “On the Soul” or “On the Little Soul.” The 600-line lyric is a Platonic love poem to “Emily,” standing in for the real-life Teresa Viviani, a 19-year-old whose tyrannical father confined her to a convent and for whom Shelley developed a passion; the Norton editors blandly comment that our poet “was always struck by the plight of teen-age girls confined by strict (or tyrannical) fathers.” Shelley announces in a dedicatory proem,

This song shall be thy rose: its petals pale
Are dead, indeed, my adored Nightingale
But soft and fragrant is the faded blossom,
And it has no thorn left to wound thy bosom.

This phallic divestiture continues throughout the poem: the autobiographical speaker portrays his love life as a series of violations and betrayals of his passive soul.

First, he meets the femme fatale (presumably Shelley’s abandoned first wife, Harriet) whose “killing air…pierced like honey-dew / Into the core of my green heart.” Then the “cold chaste Moon” whose “chaste cold bed” (I fear biographical critics assign this frigid role to Mary) rescues him until he can find Emily, the Platonic “Vision” he’d been seeking all along. In a moment reminiscent of Asia’s transfiguration in Prometheus Unbound, our speaker glories to find her “penetrating me with living light.”

In defiance of all tyrannical fathers, this thornless, penetrated son wishes to fuse with Emily so they can become two souls in one, sibling-androgynes, who consummate Platonically in another long vision of utopia. Spiritual incest becomes universal fraternity: all men and women are brothers and sisters in the beloved republic. Along the way, he pleads for an end to monogamy:

I never was attached to that great sect.
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend.
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion…

Arnold charged Shelley with humorlessness, but he lacks a sense of the tragic too. Both the comic and the tragic require an acknowledgement of existential realities, of incommensurate goods in conflict; for the comedian and the tragedian, we achieve our human dignity in rising to the occasion of these inexorable limits, either with knowing laughter or grave equanimity. Shelley wants it all, free love in Plato’s Republic, this woman and that woman and this other girl too—above all, faded though it be, the rose without the thorn.

The vision of the poet as Aeolian harp, suffused with world-spirit, which is so attractive a vision of Romantic genius in “A Defence of Poetry,” proves less appealing when translated into mundane reality. Shelley portrays himself as the inoffensive innocent wanderer, a gentle porous soul whose appetites can be reconciled to the universe without remainder, as if because he can envision a world in which no one is ever hurt he can deny that he himself might hurt anyone. “Weep not for me!” the speaker of “Epipsychidion” cries, but I was never in any danger of doing so. The verse is eloquent, the verse is visionary, but it is an aesthetic judgment on this and other utopian poems, not an ethical or political one, to say that there is something here verging on the contemptible.

Next among the high points of the Shelleyan canon is what he himself called “the least imperfect of my compositions,” “Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats.” The title imputed to Keats combines the dying young god Adonis—subject of Bion of Smyrna’s ancient Greek elegy that was Shelley’s model—and Adonai, Hebrew for “Lord.” From this long elegy in Spenserian stanzas comes the legend of Keats’s mortal wounding by his critics. The tribute from one poet to another is often moving, especially when Shelley places Keats in the lineage of Milton and of Milton’s cosmic muse, Urania, a company of republican visionaries, defeated in the flesh, yet triumphant in spirit: “Lost angel of a ruined Paradise!” Shelley creates, however, a sentimental, exaggerated sense of Keats’s weakness and victimhood—and by extension, his own.

“O gentle child, beautiful as thou wert,
Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men
Too soon, and with weak hands though mighty heart
Dare the unpastur’d dragon in his den?
Defenceless as thou wert, oh, where was then
Wisdom the mirror’d shield, or scorn the spear?”

Though he claims for Keats and himself a place in the great tradition of Homer, Dante, and Milton, he refuses their more authoritative postures, their bold claims to justify the ways of God to man. The poet here becomes less the maker of verses than a special type of person, an injured and perishing Adonis, wounded Hyacinth, self-transfixed Narcissus, above all a “gentle child,” in a rhetorical paradox whereby one claims honors for oneself just by virtue of being what one is, while never quite taking responsibility even for one’s own good works.

Despite the formal intricacy of his Spenserian stanzas, Shelley advocates what we might call an identity politics of the artist qua artist. He replaces the masterpiece—a freestanding art object—with the genius, who is in theory a genius whether he makes a masterpiece or not, whether he even makes any work at all. As a lament for Keats, it’s a condescending gesture; Shelley mourns his friend as pure, lost potential—understandably, given the shortness of his life—as if the work left behind, the romances and sonnets and odes, were inconsiderable beside what might have been. When Shelley concludes the poem with a Platonic paean to death as the soul’s return from whence it came, before falling to our corrupt sphere, he completes his disparagement of sublunary work and works.

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled!—Rome’s azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.

The poet is too good for this world. Why, then, write such worldly things as poems, destined to stain the whiteness and silence, to rest scattered among the shards of experience?

Shelley’s final, unfinished poem, “The Triumph of Life,” while among his most lyrically beautiful in its rapid, virtuoso terza rima, inspired by Petrarch and Dante, brings to its despairing conclusion the rejection of life in which “Adonias” culminates. It opens when a sleepless Shelley, despairing over unspoken troubles (love life acting up again), receives a vision of a nightmarish triumphal procession out of the Roman Empire: a chariot drawn by a hidden team guided by a “Janus-visaged Shadow.” The young are driven before it in sexual delirium, while the impotent old trail behind; to it are bound the great men of history, all save “they of Athens and Jerusalem,” presumably Socrates and Jesus, who in their divine wisdom turned aside from life. (As Harold Bloom points out in his study of Romantic poetry, The Visionary Company, the chariot vision mocks the redemptive processions in Ezekiel, Dante’s Purgatorio, and other precursors.)

In the poem’s wonderfully surreal imaginative coup, a root that is all that remains “[o]f what was once Rousseau,” the spiritual father of Shelley’s revolutionary Romanticism, plays Virgil to Shelley’s pilgrim as he looks upon life’s grim procession. Rousseau points out that life, in the form of sensuality or power-seeking, triumphed over the greatest men and women, from Plato to himself, and guides Shelley to observe the Enlightenment’s intellectual and political illuminati—Voltaire and Kant, Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great—bound in defeat to the triumphal car, no less than greedy popes and warmongering caesars, where they are joined by Napoleon, a vision that leaves our poet in despair.

Like many a disappointed revolutionary before and after him, he finally turns aside and asks “why God made irreconcilable / Good and the means of good.” He admits that the Enlightenment and the Revolution have failed, in the same way that Christianity failed before them, liberatory hopes decaying into tyranny, but decides he’d rather die with Christ and Socrates than live like Wordsworth or Napoleon, enslaved to life’s triumphal car of power and delusion. The poem then turns to Rousseau’s own story of decline and fall, a gorgeous lyric recapitulating (as Bloom observes) Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” ode about the dreaming, innocent child’s fall into the corruptions of life through the seductions of sexuality and intellect.

The poem breaks off with Shelley’s anguished question, “What, then, is life?” but we’ve already been told, and Shelley himself was shortly to leave it, drowned off Livorno in 1822. Though an accident and not a suicide, was it a consummation devoutly to be wished? It’s hard to imagine a conservative turn like Wordsworth’s or Coleridge’s for Shelley, or even an Eliot-like conversion, a religious reconciliation to reality, where the fire and the rose are one; but was he denied even something like Yeats’s late phase, an old man’s rage for the rag and bone shop of the heart? The articulate beauty of his observations almost makes me think it might have been possible—

the Sun’s image radiantly intense

Burned on the waters of the well that glowed
Like gold, and threaded all the forest maze
With winding paths of emerald fire…

—but perhaps it’s best we have this impossible poet, this poet of the impossible, who left a permanent monument of such evanescent art on its height.