P. B. Shelley's Contribution as A Romantic Poet

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      Introduction: J.C. Smith writing on Shelley, says: "No poet suffered severer reprobation in his life and none perhaps has evoked more ardent sympathy and admiration in later years than this strange offshoot from an otherwise undistinguished aristocratic family". In such a poor state and circumstances, Shelley began writing both verse and prose at a very early stage. But his boyhood writings are of little importance for they are more of imitation than of originality.

All the romantic traits of Shelley’s poetry are summed up beautifully by Compton-Rickett. To quote this critic: “Shelley exhaled verse as a flower exhales fragrance, and just a the fragrance of a blossom varies in quality and power, so did Shelley’s verse vary in poetic merit. The essential point is that there was no effort or laborious artistry about it at any time. He may not always have been a great poet—much in Queen Mab is second-rate poetry—but he was always a poet. Rhythm came as naturally to him as breathing, This distinguishes him at once from his contemporaries, several of whom served a laborious apprenticeship to the poetic Art. Keats especially, whom one always thinks of in connection with Shelley, for personal reasons, strove long and arduously before he arrived at that consummate art that conceals art in much flawless gem as the Ode to Autumn.
P. B. Shelley

      Early Stage: As Desmond King puts it "His skill in poetry was a gradual growth". Shelley's first poem Queen Mab (1812-13) has a considerable biographical and psychological interest as the starting point of his later development. It is a strange poem, a confused yet eloquent record of a confused state of feeling through which a young poet who never quite understood either himself or other men, was passing. This poem is an exposition of Godwin's doctrines and his French atheistic and revolutionistic teachings and in imitation of Robert Southey's works. This piece of work foreshadows the two great themes of Shelley - belief in the existence of Heaven and development of man towards perfection. Thus, from the beginning we see Shelley as a poet with the belief in the existence of goodness, a Heaven, and the possibility that the world can be transformed into the likeness of Heaven.

      Queen Mab (1813) had foreshadowed faintly the subject matter of his mature poetry but it has hardly any of its wonderful music. That music is heard for the first time in the first of his great works, Alastor (1815). Alastor is a poem of an idealized version of Shelley himself. It is about a tragic idealist who vainly pursues the perfect beauty until his death which is described at the conclusion of the poem in lines of solemn beauty. The value of Alastor lies not in its story but in its mood of ardent aspiration, its magnificent descriptions of nature, and the noble music of its blank verse which owes much to Wordsworth. This is the beginning of Shelley's apprenticeship to his art.

      Mont Blanc and Hymn to Intellectual Beauty belong to the memorable period of Shelley's friendship with Byron in 1816, and express the Shelleyan idealism.

      Next comes The Revolt of Islam (1818) a still more ambitious, revolutionary allegorical poem modeled on Spenser's work. This piece is a combination of Shelley's two invariable motives—a passionate philanthropy and an equally passionate eroticism. He feels the liberation of mankind is to be achieved by eloquent persuasion. It contains individual passages of very great beauty with the use of language in an entirely new and distinctive manner. The chief and sole beauty of the poem lies in the music of the blank verse and poetic imagery, where his characteristic style appears fully developed for the first time.

      Prince Atltanese is a fragment where the eternal warfare of the idealist seems to have been the theme and it pictures a philosophic converse between a young disciple and a 'divine old man'. With The Revolt of Islam and this beautiful unfinished fragment of Prince Athanase, Shelley's apprenticeship may be said to end.

      Shelley as a Romantic Poet. Shelley is a prominent romantic poet. His lofty view of poetry is based upon romanticism. He has propounded the romantic theory of poetry in a prose essay, Defence of Poetry. He considers that “the functions or objects of poetical faculty are two-fold: by one it creates new materials of knowledge, and power, and pleasure: by the other, it engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange them according to a certain rhythm and order which may be called the beautiful and the good.” Further he says the poetical power “arises from within” Thus he gives prominence to inspiration which is the keynote of romantic poetry. All the ten characteristics of his poetry mentioned above go to prove that Shelley occupies a very important place among the romantic poets.

      All the romantic traits of Shelley’s poetry are summed up beautifully by Compton-Rickett. To quote this critic: “Shelley exhaled verse as a flower exhales fragrance, and just a the fragrance of a blossom varies in quality and power, so did Shelley’s verse vary in poetic merit. The essential point is that there was no effort or laborious artistry about it at any time. He may not always have been a great poet—much in Queen Mab is second-rate poetry—but he was always a poet. Rhythm came as naturally to him as breathing, This distinguishes him at once from his contemporaries, several of whom served a laborious apprenticeship to the poetic Art. Keats especially, whom one always thinks of in connection with Shelley, for personal reasons, strove long and arduously before he arrived at that consummate art that conceals art in much flawless gem as the Ode to Autumn.

      “One other 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, not the animal youth of Byron, but the spiritual youth of the visionary and reformer. In his earlier years Godwin was the figure who most readily impressed his mobile imagination, and in many of the poems dealing with social subjects — Queen Mab, and The Revolt of Islam — he is little more than Godwin made musical. In later life, Wordsworth’s influence is more clearly discernible. But the most potent inspiration came from Greek literature, first brought before his notice by his kindly friend and critic. Peacock.

      “Shelley, like his admirer Browning, needed the sunshine of the South to rouse his finest powers. Alastor is the splendid product of his first acquaintance with the Alps; and his loveliest lyrics were written under Italian skies.

      Two notes dominate all Shelley’s work, epic, narrative, and lyric alike—his devotion to liberty, and his whole-hearted belief in love as the prime factor in all human progress. The Revolution to Shelley was much more than a political up-heaval, it was a spiritual awakening, the beginning of a new life. All that was evil in life he traced to Slavery. Natural development for him was the only development He believed that men would never be men, never give what was best in them until they could give it out freely. ‘Master yourself’ he cries, and external freedom will enable you to realize your utmost capabilities. These are the thoughts underlying The Revolt of Islam, The Masque of Anarchy, Julian and Maddalo, and the noble lyric drama, Prometheus Unbound. Liberty, Shelley’s eyes, was freedom from external restraint. It is opposed to license, for to “rule the empire of Self’ was, with Shelley, a moral necessity. What then, if force is withdrawn from Society, is to take its-place? Shelley’s answer is, Love. Love is to reign supreme, for only in an atmosphere of
love can liberty efficiently work. Love is, with Shelley, a transcendental force kindling all things into beauty. In his treatment of it we miss the more concrete touch of Keats, and the holiness of Wordsworth’s steady a flection.

      But Shelley was no ordinary human being. There is a touch of elfin magic about all his work; he sings of human passions, yet as one almost aloof from them or feeling them only in soil etherealized way. This is at once his great merit and his weakness. Consider, for instance, the Epipsychidion, where the poet pictures certain influences that have come into his life. Here surely is a subject wrought out of the poet’s most intimate experiences, which might have been profound, vital, and stirring; the love of woman and the power of that love in shaping human life I - how poignantly and graciously has Browning dealt with this in his dramatic romances; with what quiet strength does Wordsworth suggest its spiritual aspects; with what fierce ardor does Byron surround its physical manifestation: or look, on the other hand, at the subtle witchery of Sex that Keats gives us in La Belle Dame, and Coleridge in Christabel. Yet none of these things move Shelley. No poet felt more deeply the dynamic influence of love in molding human destiny; none realized more utterly the insignificance of life devoid of love; yet Shelley’s women are merely lovely wraiths that greet us to the strains of delicious music.

“A metaphor oi Spring and Youth and Morning A vision like incarnate April, warning With smiles and tears, Frost the anatomy Into his summer grave.”

      A mortal shape, the poet assures us. Can we believe him? The shape is more impersonal than the Princess of some old fairy tale. The poet has visualized a thing of beauty, but surely not a woman, merely an exquisite abstraction, a charming metaphor. The only touch of reality in the poem comes with the scenic setting; that indeed, is palpable enough, and has no peer in English verse save in the Lotus land, of Tennyson.

      “But if, when dealing with human passions, the dreamlike quality of Shelley’s verse is a defect rather than a merit; yet given a note of fantasy to start with, no poet can compel our imagination as he does. The spontaneity, the splendid abandonment, the musical rush of the lines, these things make us his willing captives. He has made our hard, sibilant language a thing of fire and air. The beauty of the visible world strikes his prismatic imagination and is dissolved into rainbow colours; the very personality of the singer melts into his song, until he ceases to be a man and becomes a voice, a lyric incarnate.

      Yet, for all the visionary quality of the verse, for all that strange aloofness, there is no vagueness of effect, or intellectual mistiness. The outlines may faint, but they are unmistakable, and in such incomparable lyrics as The Cloud and The Ode to the West Wind, there is a logical development of idea that blends perfectly with the exquisite music, making it a thing of thought and beauty all compact.”

      To sum up: “Shelley was a born visionary and a mystic, beholding thing unapparent” (Long). Hence his passionate revolt against the world, as it was or as it appeared to him, its tyrannies (political and religious), and the sufferings that loomed so large before him. “Shelley’s mature verse and diction do not serve merely as a channel for his thought and
feeling; the temper of his spirit penetrates and suffuses their very texture” (Prof. Herford). As a lyrical poet, Shelley ranks among the greatest, and he is nowhere greater than in his shorter lyrical pieces. “He is the poet of the glorious future, possessed by a vision of intellectual beauty.” (Wyatt).

      A Matured Poet: The first works of his maturity are the great lyrics, Lines Written in Euganean Hills and Julian and Maddalo, composed after his arrival in Italy In Julian and Maddalo, he celebrates his friendship with Byron, a masterpiece of a kind rarely achieved. It is a perfect example of verse which is at once familiar and even colloquial and yet highly poetical. What is remarkable in this mastery is that Shelley carries it over into his major achievement, the great lyrical drama, Prometheus Unbound.

      Prometheus Unbound (1818-1819) is the most ambitious and central attempt of the poet to render his reading of life, the mystery of good and evil and to give adequate embodiment to his own ambition as poet and reformer:

      'I have what a Scotch philosopher characteristically terms, "a passion for reforming the world".'

       To Shelley, Prometheus is the embodiment of the wisdom and heroism of humanity; while Jupiter of tyranny and superstition where he is the representative of the whole machinery of legalism, and respectability which. Shelley considered to be the burden under which the world was groaning. He portrays eternity overpowering tyranny and tyranny is removed by the spirit of love and beauty, and thus a regeneration of the world. But in the Fourth Act, he portrays a magnificent lyrical vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where time itself has been replaced by Eternity and man has become

One harmonious soul of many a soul
Whose nature is its own divine control
Where all things flow to all, as rivers to the sea.

      The central theme of Prometheus Unbound, is again that of Godwinism—an enslaved world of evils regenerated by their sudden overthrow. But here, the abstractions of Godwinism are not that of a political philosopher, but of a creator of mythology Macaulay rightly comments on this:

      "He turned atheism itself into a mythology; rich with visions as glorious as the gods that live in the marble of Phidias or the virgin saints that smile on us from the canvas of Murillo. The spirit of Beauty; the principle of good, the principle of evil when he treated of them, ceased to be abstractions. They took shape and color. They were no longer mere words, but 'intelligible forms', 'fair humanities', objects of love, of adoration, or of fear."

      Most of the critics are tempted to consider the characters of Prometheus Unbound as inhuman. They are inhuman, because they represent mythical and elemental beings and no men and women. Otherwise it can't be judged as a drama. Shelley wrote to Peacock:

"It is a drama, with character and mechanism of a kind yet unattempted".

      This poem is noted for its vast orchestrated lyricism representing a series of visions of an ideal world.

      From this piece, it is understood, he has risen to the highest line and it is seen that his original ideas of a perfect world and of regeneration are now deepened and transformed by the study of Plato, of Spinoza, and of Dante and the existing power is no longer Reason but Love.

      The Cenci (1819) is a work in a different manner where Shelley shows his skill in handling any subject and mastering an uncongenial style. It is a tragedy of the Italian life and displays his lack of knowledge of human nature, for a play on such a theme is seldom successful. Shelley's treatment of the tragic horror as tragic dignity with a restraint and a delicacy; gives the play a unique place among tragic dramas of modern times. "He does not... reproduce with modifications the style of Shakespeare, but does what Shakespeare did... idealize without describing the language of contemporary speech", says A.C. Bradley.

      Shelley as A Satirist: To comment upon Shelley's sarcasm, Peter Bell The Third is an the apt example. It is a satire on Wordsworth, a "dull" poet and recalls the earlier Wordsworth, a man of false ideals who composed poems on 'moor and glen and rocky Lake/And on the heart of man'. Shelley criticizes the reactionary politician who once welcomed revolution and the dull poet, Wordsworth himself, who was very famous.

      Though Shelley had not much natural aptitude for satire, yet he was successful in his attempts. In Mask of Anarchy (1819) and Swellfoot (1820), he shows his skill in handling the theme of politics also.

      The Letter to Maria Gisborne (1820) displays his ability to write an easy natural, yet poetical conversation. The Witch of Atlas (1820) composed in ottava rima like that of Byron's best poems, is a contrast to his other works for it is a long poem of pure escape to fancy weaving a myth of deliverance from Shelley's imagined troubles, personal and human, where he gives his imagination free play.

      In The Sensitive Plant, he finds out a new symbol for his own love of love'. In Adonais (1821), the great elegy on Keats, he reincarnates the Greek pastoral lament and reveals his faith in the spiritual reality:

      Shelley's famous and short poems The Ode to the West Wind, The Cloud, The Skylark are written in verse forms of his own innovation, about the divinity of Nature and the Supreme Power.

      The Letter to Maria Gisborne celebrates his intellectual friendship without any imitation and it is poetry of fun with human thought and common sense.

      Epipsychidion (1821) is a poem inspired by his admiration for Emilia Viviani, an Italian girl who was imprisoned in a convent at Pisa. It is also an expression of that "high, sweet, mystic doctrine of love" taught by Plato in the Symposium and Dante in the Vita Nnova though marred, as Swinburne has justly pointed out, by "such mere personal allusions as can only perplex and irritate the patience and intelligence of a loyal student." It's a personal poem which demonstrates his weaknesses and strong points more than any other poem does.

      Hellas (1821), the lyrical drama is described by Shelley as a sort of imitation of the Personae of Aeschylus. He wrote this to celebrate the outbreak of the Greek war of Independence. Though much lighter than Prometheus Unbound, it is marked for Shelley's most beautiful and finished lyrical verse. The lyrical movement of the "Chorus", marks the highest form of Shelley's rhythmical invention.

      In 1821, a slight change came over the tone of the shorter lyrics, but the achievements of 1821 were scarcely inferior to those of 1819.

      In 1821, Peacock wrote The Four Ages of Poetry, attacking the poetry of his own age and to defend it, Shelley wrote his greatest prose A Defence of Poetry which ranges far beyond the scope of literature. It expresses a profound philosophy of art, and is equally valuable as a critical work of universal application, and as a revelation of Shelley's own theory and practice of poetry. It reveals the extraordinary power and beauty of the language.

      Last Achievement: His last achievement is The Triumph of Life (1821) which is a fragment as he died before completing it. Here, he states his philosophy of life that "Life is what triumphs over Nature, triumphs over imagination. Life is death-in-life, cold, common hell in which we wake to weep". It is in the form of Italian ’Terza rima’, strongly influenced by Dante and Petrarch. Some are of the opinion that had this work been finished, it might have been one of the greatest English poems.

      Conclusion: Some may claim that Shelley's poetry stands less high in recent English estimation than it did even before the war. But to Saintsbury, he is nevertheless the quintessential poet and to Herford as to A.C. Bradley and Gilbert Murray he is still both poet and prophet.


Q. 1. Trace Shelley's development as a poet illustrating it from the prescribed poems.
Q. 2. Justify Desmond King-Hele's comment on Shelley: "His skill in poetry was a gradual growth".
Q. 3. Give a vivid picture of Shelley's growth from a revolutionist to a successful Romanticist.

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