Main Features of P. B. Shelley's Poetry

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      Lyricism: Our reading of Shelley's poems makes it clear to us why the poet is considered one of the greatest lyrical geniuses in English poetry. Shelley's poems are marked by an intensity of feeling and a spontaneity due to swift, momentary and passionate impulses. His lyrics therefore seem to be effortless compositions and are as sweet and melodious as the song of his skylark. The following lines from To A Skylark, may be quoted to illustrate this smooth, flowing grace of Shelley's lyrics:

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know.
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen to thee—as I am listening now.

      About his lyricism, Charles Morgan has rightly observed: "His instrument was unique. There is no poet, not even Shakespeare in his lyrics, who has Shelley's effect of bird-song pouring and pouring out. His lyrics are not written; they burst from the hedgerow, the sunshine, the air; they give to the hearer, that sense of penetrating rapture, which Nature gives, and love, but contrivance never". Shelley's careful choice of words which convey the sense has also added to the musicality of his verse. The musical cadences of his verse are swift and impetuous, grave and solemn, galloping and joyous, according to the nature of emotions expressed. The rolling music of the Ode to the West Wind, thus appears to be in perfect harmony with the swift, gusty march of the wind:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being

      His A Skylark is not just a poem but the skylark's song itself translated into Stanzas. The Stanza of the poem, indeed, corresponds in its first four lines to the crescendo of the bird's song, and, in the prolonged last line to the 'rain of melody' which is its climax. In The Cloud, Shelley has skilfully created a rhythm that suggests the movement of clouds scudding across the Sky before a tempestuous wind. Such blending of sense and verification accounts for the wonderful musical quality of Shelley's poetry.

      Note of Yearning: A profound note of yearning for the unattainable is another feature of Shelley's poetry He is ever haunted by the Eternal Mind. He constantly endeavors to look beyond the evil of life and chases the invisible and the impalpable. His desire is something like:

The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.

      He gives various names to this unattainable thing. In his Hymn To Intellectual Beauty, he describes it as the spirit of Beauty pervading the universe. He thinks of this Beauty as the only truth and other things as its imperfect copies. He speaks of it as an "unseen power" that rarely visits human hearts, as an 'awful Loveliness' that can free this world from tyranny and oppression. Shelley's Skylark, is again not just a bird, but an embodiment of this ideal. The poet can hear its song but the bird ever remains invisible. According to Cazamian, "The tone of Shelley's poetry is that of a keen aspiration, in which mystical desire, with its anguished pangs and spiritual raptures, transcends the joys and sufferings of ordinary mankind."

      Platonism: Shelley had a deep interest in ancient Greeks. His enthusiasm for the wisdom of the Greek philosophers is implicit in many of his poems. Plato exercised the greatest influence on him and like him Shelley in his poetry, treats natural objects and human life as bad copies of a remote ideal. This gives Shelley a sharper appreciation of natural forms and the theory that artists and poets must try to remove the worldly cover from objects and expose the underlying ideal prototype. Platonism appeals to him most because the guiding power behind the ideal forms serves him in lieu of a religion. It begins in him in his early poetic career when he tries to define the "unseen power" behind the ideal forms in the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. This idea of a guiding power emerges in various forms, and often with a strong element of pantheism, in many of his later poems. In Adonais, Shelley's Platonism has found the most elaborate expression. The famous image in the poem:

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly,
Life like a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity;
Until Death tramples it to fragments

      has been described by critics as the best epigrammatic expression of Platonism in English poetry. Sometimes Shelley becomes pantheistic in his concept of nature when he seems to believe that every aspect of nature is a manifestation of only one and indivisible soul or spirit and that after the end of the earthly existence, everything is reunited with that one soul. In Adonais, Keats, after his death, thus becomes:

.....a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely: he doth bear
His dart, while the one Spirit's plastic stress
Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there All new successions to the forms they wear.

      Shelley's concept of love, too, is borrowed from Plato. Like Plato, he looks upon love as a principle which extends through nature and rules over all things, divine as well as human. Shelley thus speaks of love in Adonais:

.....that sustaining love
Which through the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea.

      Shelley's concept of love, like Plato's, has nothing to do with sexual passion. In the short poem, One Word is Too Often Profaned, Shelley distinguishes his love from the ordinary sexual love of others:
I can give not what men call love.

      This Platonic concept of an ethereal, noble and sublime love pervades Shelley's entire love poetry

      Vagueness: Matthew Arnold has brought a charge of insubstantiality against Shelley's poetry. There is some truth in Arnold's criticism but it is not the whole truth. There is no doubt that Shelley's poetry suffers from vagueness, but to say that it lacks any substance is to do injustice to a great poet. Shelley has been haunted by visions since childhood. In Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, he refers to his boyhood when he looked for ghosts through "many a listening chamber, cave, and ruin." At no period of his life was he fully free from vision. It is natural that a hypersensitive person as Shelley is bound to see visions which are beyond the range of ordinary thinking. Shelley does not find words or images in this matter-of-fact world to give expression to his visions. So he soars, like his Skylark, higher and higher into the ethereal world to find proper symbols for his purpose. His poetry, composed in that ethereal world looks vague to the ordinary human understanding. His West Wind, Cloud and Skylark are all familiar to us, but in his hands they have assumed a vague, ethereal character beyond ordinary comprehension. Without rising to Shelley's heights it is difficult to appreciate his poetry.

      Melancholy and Optimism: Pessimism and optimism run side by side through the entire length of his poetry Whenever he thinks of the corruption and tyranny prevailing in this world and of his personal sufferings, he becomes extremely pessimistic. His Stanzas Written in Dejection, O World! O Life! O Time, are poems of his personal despair and despondency His cry of anguish in The Indian Serenade:

O lift me from the grass!
I die! I faint! I fail!

      arises from genuine frustration and personal agonies. In Adonais, he describes himself thus:

He came the last, neglected and apart:
A herd-abandoned deer, struck by the hunter's dart.

      It is true that direct melancholy is the most dominant note in Shelley's poetry However; the poet is extremely optimistic about the future of mankind. He sincerely believes that a golden millennium ensuring happiness for all is coming to replace the present age of tyranny; slavery and corruption. Whenever he comes to talk of the future, he becomes ecstatic with joy. What can be more optimistic than his prophecy with which the Ode to the West Wind ends:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

      This co-existence of two opposing forces—pessimism and optimism— is a unique feature of Shelley's poetry


Q. 1. Give an account of the qualities of Shelley's poetry with reference to the poems you have read.
Q. 2. What Shelleyan features do you come across while reading the poems by Shelley prescribed in your text?

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