P. B. Shelley's Literary Contribution to Romanticism

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      Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) alone among the Romantic poets imbibed the explosive spirit of the revolution. He was the child of the French Revolution and rebelled against all that he felt to be a cause of, human misery. He saw in established institutions, in kings and priests, all the diverse forms of evil and obstacles to human happiness and progress. He dreamed of a new world order based on liberty, love and equality.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) alone among the Romantic poets imbibed the explosive spirit of the revolution.
Percy Bysshe Shelley

      Shelley Born at Field place, Sussex and educated at Eton and Oxford, he was a born-rebel. At Eton he showed the strain of the rebel in him by defying the authorities. He was expelled from Oxford for circulating a pamphlet on The Necessity of Atheism At 21 he wrote Queen Mab which is a formal profession of atheism. His The Revolt of Islam (1817) is a sort of transfigured picture of the French Revolution. In 1820 appeared Prometheus Unbound which sang the hymn of revolt against the oppression of false gods. He published the drama Hellas (1812) in honour of Greece which fought against the Ottoman rule.

      Percy Bysshe Shelley came of a rich but undistinguished family in the south of England. He was born at Field place, Sussex and educated at Eton and Oxford, and even as a schoolboy was marked for the independence of his thought and his carelessness of convention. He was early interested in philosophy, and while and undergraduate published a pamphlet on the Necessity of Atheism, which led to his expulsion from the Oxford University. His The Revolt of Islam (1817) is a sort of transfigured picture of the French Revolution. In 1820 appeared Prometheus Unbound which sang the hymn of revolt against the oppression of false gods. He published the drama Hellas (1812) in honour of Greece which fought against the Ottoman rule. Going up to London, he visited his sisters boarding school, and there make a runaway marriage with her. He was then nineteen.

      For some time Shelley was actively engaged in trying to spread his radical political opinions by speeches and pamphlets, but later hid reforming passion found expression in verse. In a few years he out grew Harriet and abandoned her. Later he found a more sympathetic soul in Mary Godwin, daughter of the philosopher and novelist, William Godwin, and carried her off to Switzerland, where he invited Harriet to high and the courts deprived him of his children. In 1818 he took up his residence in Italy, where he remained for the rest of his life. The history of his later years is chiefly that of his intellectual development and amazing poetical production. In the summer of 1822, he went to Pisa to welcome Leigh Hunt and his family and returning by sea from Leghorn to Spezzia, he was overtaken by a squall and drowned. His body was cremated and the ashes placed in the Protestant cemetery at home, near the grave of Keats, whose latest volume was found in his pocket when the body was recovered (Neilson and Thorndike).

      Shelley was however inspired by love in his struggle against tyranny and oppression. Byron was inspired by, a dislike of mankind and so his poetry was satirical and sardonic. But Shelley's love extended to every living creature, to animals and flowers, to the whole of Nature. Some of his best lyrics, Ode to the West Wind, To the Skylark, The Cloud testify to his emotional identification with Nature and to his optimistic faith in mankind. Alastor (1816) recounts his pursuit of an unattainable ideal of beauty. In Epipsychidion, he sings of his love for a beautiful young Italian girl. The Witch of Atlas (1820) is the most delicate of Shelley's - fantasies. The Masque of Anarchy (1819, published 1832), inspired by the news of the massacre of Peterloo expresses Shelley's revolutionary political views and is very severe on Lord Castlereagh. Adonais (1821) is an elegy dedicated to the poet Keats. The Triumph of Life is a mysterious fragment with the promise of a masterpiece.

      Shelley is one of the supreme lyrical poets of England. The lyrical rapture in all his works is unique. The spontaneous utterance of his passion and emotion and the rich melody of his poetry are an abiding contribution to English lyric poetry. He achieved an easy flexibility of rhythm that is quite astonishing in every form of verse he wrote. He used couplets in Julian and Maddalo, the Spenserian stanza in Adonais and The Revolt of Islam, terza rima in To The West Wind, iambic verses and anapaests as in The Cloud and The Sensitive Plant, Lyrical intensity is invariably accompanied with a gift of melody in Shelley's love-lyrics. Swinburne calls him "the perfect singing god."

      Shelley wrote dramas when he was in Italy. Prometheus Unbound (1818-1819), published (1820) is a wonderful combination of the lyric and the drama. It shows Shelley's aspiring soul yearning for freedom. It has the sweep and soar of audacious poetry. The Cenci (1819) is a formal drama dealing with a grim and sordid family affair. It is in the vein of Elizabethan melodrama. It has the lack of subtlety in its character drawing and the inadequacy of its dramatic action. It retells in dramatic form the terrible story of Beatrice who, the victim of a father's lust takes his life in revenge. Hellas is another drama. Shelley's Critical writing in prose A Defence of Poetry was published in 1820.

Literary Works of Shelley

      (i) Queen Mab (1813). His earliest/effort of any note is Queen Mab. The poem is clearly immature; it is lengthy, and contains much of Shelley’s cruder atheism. It is written in the irregular unrhymed meter that was made; popular by Southey. The beginning is worth quoting, for already it reveals a touch of the any music that was to distinguish his later work.

      (ii) Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude (1816). It is a kind of spiritual autobiography. The chief character is projection of Shelley’s own moods to travels through a wilderness in quest of the ideal beauty. This was the poet’s first important work. It Is an allegory in which the idealist is depicted happy in the contemplation of high thoughts and visions of beauty. Presently he seeks in reality the counterpart of his \ dreams. He meets with frustration, is plunged into despair, and dies. The poem is a condemnation of self-centered idealism, and at the same time a lament for a world in which ‘many worms and beasts and men live on’, while ‘some surpassing spirit’ is borne away leaving ‘pale despair and cold tranquility’ behind. It is written in blank verse that shows Shelley’s growing skill as a poet.

      (iii) The Revolt of Islam (1818). This poem was originally entitled Laon and Cythna. It was written in Spenserian stanzas. It was written at a time when) the reaction that followed the fall of Napoleon had brought much misery among the poorer classes, and had stirred Shelley’s revolutionary instincts. It is a symbolic tale, in some respects obscure, ‘illustrating’, in Shelley’s in words, ‘the growth and progress of individual mind aspiring after excellence, and devoted to the love of mankind,’ and ‘its impatience at all the oppositions that are done under the sun.’ Cythna, a heroic maiden devoted to the liberation of her sex, united with Laon in a common ideal, rouses the spirit of revolt among the people of Islam against their tyrants. The revolt is temporarily successful, but the tyrants return with increased forces, and in revenge lay the land desolate. Famine and plague descend upon it. To avert these, Laon and Cythna have burnt at the stake, at the instigation of a priest. But the poem closes with an indication of the transient nature of error and of the eternity of genius and virtue.

      (iv) Prometheus Unbound (1818—19). “Shelley’s most characteristic work, in both thought and style, is Prometheus Unbound. The subject was suggested by a lost drama of Aeschylus, in which Prometheus, the hero of friend and lover of mankind, was unchained from a bleak precipice where the tyrant Zeus had hung him. In Shelley’s treatment, Prometheus represents, not superhuman helper of mankind, but Mankind itself, heroic, just, gentle, sacredly thirsting after liberty and spiritual gladness, but chained and tortured by the ruler of Heaven. In the fullness’ time Demogorgon (Necessity) hurls the tyrant from his throne; and Prometheus, amid the songs of Earth and the Moon, is united to Asia, the spirit of love in nature. Here, as elsewhere,” Shelley shows himself a child of the French Revolution, in believing that it is only some External tyranny - the might of priests and kings, the weight of “custom”, the dark creed of superstition—which keeps mankind from rising to his ideal stature. Here Shelley’s faith in the inevitable elimination of evil from the world and its consequent domination by love receives transcendent expression. The nobility of mood and the heroic enthusiasm of the drama makes it eternally inspiring. And for its spirit of revolutionary idealism the verse of the poem is a glorious venture. The unearthly beauty of its imagery and the ethereal music of its songs and choruses make this not only Shelley’s highest poetic achievement but his most powerful statement of his moral philosophy.

      (v) The Cenci (1819). “In The Cenci Shelley started to write formal drama. In this play, he seen deliberately to have set upon himself the restraints that he defied in Prometheus Unbound. The plot is not of the sky and the sea; it is a grim and sordid family affair: in style, is neither fervent, nor ornate, but bleak and austere. Yet behind this reticence of
the concluding stanzas of Adonais are the most sublime expression of Shelley’s philosophy of life and death, and of the immortality of the soul.

      (vi) His Lyrics. “With the longer poems went a brilliant cascade of shorter lyrical pieces. To name them is to mention some of the sweetest English lyrics. The constantly quoted To a Skylark and The Cloud are among them; so are some exquisite songs, such as The Indian Serenate, Music, when soft voices die, On a Faded Violet, To Night, and the longer occasional pieces— for example, Lines written among the Euganean Hills, and the Letter to Maria Gisborne. Of his many beautiful odes, the most remarkable is Ode to the West Wind. The stanzas have the elemental rush of the wind itself, and the conclusion, where Shelley sees a parallel to himself is the most remarkable of all:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is: What if my leaves are falling like its own I The tumult of thy mighty harmonies.

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