P. B. Shelley: as A Prophet & A Reformer

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      Shelley as a prophet and an idealist. Shelley was not only a reformer and humanitarian, but he was a prophet and an idealist. Shelley, the prophet and the idealist, sang of universal woe and sorrow. He was so tired of tyranny, injustice, darkness and high headedness that he expressed himself with all intensity and vigor. In his three great poems, Queen Mab, Hellas and Prometheus Unbound, he gave vent to his conception of the ideal world. In his poem The World’s Great Age Begins Anew he expresses the ultimate hopes of regeneration of mankind. His lyric-cry is—

“Another Athens shalt arise, And to remoter time Bequeath like sunset to the skies, The splendor of its prime;”

      His was a great idealist or prophet of the A Golden Age or of the Millennium that would come. He was hoping against hope that there was a bright future for mankind, when evil, tyranny, lust, and injustice would be annihilated and beauty, freedom and love would take place in turn. An eminent critic remarks: Shelley is still a living force, because through the body of his poetic work still burns the prophetic fire that inspired it. He was an idealist who dared hope, howsoever, in the opinion of some, that there was a future for mankind, when Evil, Tyranny, Lust, and the whole satanic crew will be annihilated; when Love, Freedom, and Beauty alone will survive to reign supreme among men. His poems, whether lyrical dramatic, or political, are all unified by this ultimate hope in the regeneration of mankind. So perfect and sincere was the conviction that his life, from his childhood onwards, is dedicated to the service of man. If not in action, at least in his poetry, he strove to realize this high ideal. Even nature shared man’s destiny in his thoughts. The slcy and the sea, winds, rainbow and clouds, the sun, the stars and the other elemental forces that impel them occupied his thoughts, and colored his conception of Beauty, Love and Freedom. As these virtues gain control of man’s actions, he moves towards perfection and unity with nature.

      Shelley is one of the subtlest and most profound thinkers among English poets, a prophet with a penetrating vision of reality; whose words can only be thoroughly understood after long and careful study They are well described by Browning as, "a sublime fragmentary essay towards a presentment of the correspondence of the universe to Deity, of the natural to the spiritual, and of the actual to the ideal". Before he was a poet, he was a prophet and his poetry is largely the medium of his prophetic message. He is not only a poet, he is a prophet and a reformer.

      Shelley never believed in life as it is lived; so he made people realize and aspire for the absence of the necessities. He hated and condemned the tyranny of State, Religion and Society which stand in the path of a heavenly blissful life. The calamities, he refers to are not natural calamities but man-made calamities; aspiration of man for Power pollutes the whole nation like a 'devastating pestilence. So people suffer under such people's tyranny. So he longs for a golden age which is free from such calamities yet immune to pain and death.

      He prophesies a world which is attainable. But he reveals the truth that it is not easy to attain such a virtuous world. Centuries will pass before the goal is attained and it is possible only through the efforts of wise virtuous and heroic human beings. But in his imagination, Shelley leaped over centuries. He sings in the 'Ode to the West Wind'.

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth,
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind.

      Some critics are of the opinion that the world cannot understand his ideas. Even if the world fails to understand him, like a prophet, he will lead them to his future world. For, in Prometheus Unbound, he dramatizes the defeat of evil by the spirit of life. He is not shy to deal with such an enormous subject and is ready with the solution for the problems which it raises. The answer is that evil is subdued by love. Shelley suggests that this reappearance of evil is a possibility in a remote future. To Shelley; the prophecy is to begin and end, and the prophecy is of love. He prophesies: once human goodness is aware of love and touched by it, marvelous things may happen, which is the main theme celebrated in his Prometheus Unbound.

      Shelley is a poetical angel who saves us from the cruel hands of dejection and suffering and shows us the brighter way to success. For that, he says, what is important is 'hope'; we should not lose our hope at any time, for destruction is to regeneration, night is to day; unhappiness is to happiness, slavery is to freedom, end is to beginning as he points out in Ode to the West Wind:

If Winter comes can Spring be far behind?

      So the golden age, in Shelley's view, lies not in the past but in the future.

      Shelley's devotion to liberty made him a violent reformer. Seeking to overthrow our present institutions and to hurry the millennium out of its slow walk into a gallop, to renovate the world, to bring about utopia—this was his constant aim.

      Shelley was much influenced by Godwin's revolutionary theories. He was in rebellion against the institution of marriage too, for which he proposed to substitute the doctrine of elective affinity A few years later, Shelley showed his belief in the revolutionary theories preached by Godwin by eloping with his daughter, Mary This proves that he is not only a dreamer but a reformer too. He was a true revolutionary, perpetually at war with the present world, a martyr and exile, fighting and crying defiance to the end.

      As a true reformer, he tries to deliver himself, as well as humanity from evil and darkness. He preaches that the solution is the Universal spirit of love. Love within sheds its rays and illuminates the whole universe:

One spirit's plastic stress
Sweep through the dull dense world, compelling there
All new successions to the forms they wear;
Torturing the unwilling dress that checks
it's flight
To its own likeness.

      He looked forward to that world when the 'plastic stress' of this Power shall have mastered the last resistance and have become all in all, and when both Nature and mankind shall have been fully redeemed. This is the faith of the prophet. This is the most striking quality of Shelley—to awaken public hope and to enlighten and improve mankind.

      Shelley as a prophet with penetrating vision of reality is evident in his own sentence on Dante in A Defence of Poetry. "His very words are instinct with spirit, each is as a spark, a burning atom of inextinguishable thought and many yet be covered in the ashes of their birth and pregnant with a lightning which has as yet found no conductor."

      Shelley, the Rebel and the Reformer - Shelley was a great rebel and revolutionary. He had great scorn for the existing political, social and economic institutions. He did not like the rigid laws which were hampering the development and growth of man’s personality. He considered, that love should be the root and basis of man’s development instead of tyranny and oppression. His rebellious nature can be’ noted in his well-known pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, for which he was expelled from the college. Commenting on the revolutionary and rebellious nature manifested in this work, Symons observes: “The cardinal characteristic of his nature was an implacable antagonism to shams and conventions, which passed too easily into impatient rejection of established forms as worse than useless His passionate love of liberty, his loathing for intolerance, his impatience of control for self and others, and his vivid logical sincerity, combined to make him the Quixotic champion of extreme opinions. He was too fearless to be wise, too precipitate to suspend his judgment, too convinced of the paramount importance of iconoclasm to mature his views in silence. The spirit of the French Revolution, uncompromising, shattering, eager to build in a day the structure which long centuries of growth must fashion, was still fresh upon him He had a vital faith, and this faith made the ideals’ he conceived possible — faith in the duty and desirability of overthrowing idols; faith in the divine beauty of nature; faith in a love that rules the universe; faith in the perfectibility of man”

      In his preface to The Revolt of Islam, he pointed out that he wanted “to kindle in the bosom of his readers a virtuous enthusiasm for those doctrines of liberty and justice, that faith and hope in something good, which neither violence, nor misrepresentation, nor prejudice, can. ever wholly extinguish among mankind.” In another poem, Prometheus Unbound, Shelley made his hero aich-rebel and he compared him with the Satan of Paradise Lost.

      “Shelley was not a rebel who was destructive. He was humanitarian and reformer as well. He had a confirmed faith that this world could be rejuvenated. In Queen Mab, he propagated the necessity of reform. A critic remarks: “One thing distinguishes Shelley from his contemporaries. He is a reformer as well as a poet. Little interested in the past, mindful only of the present when it jarred on his social idealism, his eyes are fixed intensely on the future. To renovate the world, to bring about Utopia, that is his constant aim, and for this reason we may regard Shelley as emphatically the poet of eager sensitive youth of the visionary and reformer” To quote Hudson: “Dreamer of dreams as he was, Shelley yet conceived it to be a part of life poetic mission to become the inspirer and guide of men. He had, as be confessed, a passion for reforming the world and this passion blazes out again and again in his poetry.”

      To sum up: “This love first developed as domestic affection, next as friendship, then as a youth’s passion, and at last it began to shine with a study luster as an all embracing devotion to his fellowmen. There was an intense and glowing passion of unselfishness, which throughout his life led Shelley to find his strongest interests in the joys and sorrows of his fellow creatures, which inflamed his imagination with visions of humanity made perfect and which filled his days with sweet deeds of unnumbered charities.”


Q. 1. "Before Shelley was a poet, he was a prophet and his poetry is largely the medium of his prophetic message". Comment on this statement.
Q. 2. Consider Shelley as a Prophet and Reformer in his poems.
Q. 3. How far does Shelley succeed in advocating a reformed society through his poems?

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