P. B. Shelley's Philosophy of Life in Poetry

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      Introduction: Shelley is not only a successful Romanticist but also an inspiring philosopher. He was enough of a philosopher; not merely to enjoy ideals for their own sake, but to make them a starting-point for bold speculations in which he found the thrill of a wild adventure. Whether he derived his notions from Plato or from Godwin, he was equally enthralled by them and much of his inspiration came from them.

      Revolutionary Idealism: Shelley was as much a revolutionist as Byron. From his boyhood days, he was a rebel and was inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution. He revolted against the authority at Eton school and was expelled from Oxford. Later on he revolted against the society itself regarding his marriage difficulty Thereafter; he became a true revolutionist and thereby a reformer through his poems. From Godwin he got the twin ideas that social institutions and conventions were the sources of tyranny and corruption, and laws, customs and authority are the hindrances to man's liberty and happiness. From Queen Mab onwards, his poems were meant to express his concept of the future—a future which is free from war, tyranny and corruption. In Queen Mab, he asserts the ideas of revolution and prophesies a golden age in the end. In a note to Queen Mab, he wrote "The state of Society in which we exist is a mixture of feudal savageness and imperfect civilization." In The Revolt of Islam, he has a vision of mankind which could be liberated from the present tyranny and corruption through the power of love, beauty and thought. In Rosalind and Helen, Shelley disagrees with a loveless marriage. It is in Prometheus Unbound that his revolutionary enthusiasm is best revealed. In this poem, he shows how Mankind is saved from the cruel hands of tyranny and corruption and attains Shelley's ideal world through love and goodness in nature. Shelley's idea of the regeneration of mankind through suffering, endurance of all pain, and hope is well portrayed in this poem. His vision of the future world is a world with the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

      Religious Idealism: Shelley is not only a revolutionist but a pantheist too. He believed in God, the Supreme Power of the world. But to him, Love and Beauty are the two means to attain that Supreme Power. Like Plato, he believed that the universe possessed a soul, and that the soul of man is pure in its nature, and though soiled by earth is capable of its original perfection:

Soul is not more polluted than the beams
Of Heaven's pure orb, ere round their rapid lines
The taint of earth-born atmospheres arise.

      Rabindranath Tagore's comment on the genius and philosophy of Shelley strikes at the keynote of his philosophy of life: "In Shelley we clearly see the growth of his religion through periods of vagueness and doubt, struggle and searching. But he did at length come to a positive utterance of his faith though he died young. Its final expression is in his 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty'. By the the title of the poem, the poet evidently means a beauty that is not merely a passive quality of particular things, but a spirit that manifests itself through the apparent antagonist of the unintellectual life. Religion in Shelley grew with his life. It was not given to him in fixed and ready-made doctrines; he rebelled against them. He had the creative mind which could only approach Truth through its joy in creative effort".

Never joy illumined my brow
Unlinked with hope that thou wouldst free
This world from its dark, slavery;
That thou, O awful loveliness—
Wouldst give what'er these words cannot express.

      Shelley was essentially a poet of love. His idealism was the Platonic conception of love—the love of the soul. From the lowest order it rises and reaches the supreme beauty which is the highest form of love that leads to virtue, wisdom, happiness, and is subject to its power only. He speaks of love as:

The desire of the moth for the star;
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar.

      Erotic Idealism: He believed that love and beauty were not concrete things but ideal and abstract. He was in pursuit of love and beauty throughout his life and this became the sole aim of his life. He describes the vain search of Beauty in Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and meeting with that false image of pure beauty which awakens sensual love.

      Like Plato, Shelley believed love leads to the highest wisdom, the lover proceeds by grades and stages until he achieves the supreme vision. In The Revolt of Islam, he says:

In me communion with this purest being
Kindled intenser zeal and made me wise
In knowledge, which in hers mine own mind seeing,
Left in the human world few mysteries.

      In Sensitive Plant, Shelley celebrates Platonic love; and shows love is evident in all parts of nature, and individualizes itself in the individual flowers:

.....the maid-like lily of the vale,
Whole youth makes so fair and Passion so pale.

      Philosophy of Evil—Conflict Between Good and Evil: Shelley's philosophy mainly deals with the problem of evil. To him. this world is a combination of both evil and good, and a conflict exists between them. Shelley was interested in finding out the causes of the evil and wanted to eradicate them to bring in a regenerated golden world. In Shelley's view, the forces of evil always have the upper hand and hence he felt the good people suffered. A.G. Strong says though Shelley had such a view still he believed that evil; "if it is positive and deeprooted, is also eradicable. It can be made to disappear from life and given the necessary condition of the changes, there need be little transformation of the present order". Throughout his work, we see Shelley's portrayal of the conflict between Good and Evil. In The Revolt of Islam, the fight between the snake and eagle depicts the fight between good and evil. Shelley speaks of the Eagle's victory as a temporary one:

The victor fiend
Omnipotent of yore, now quails, and fears
His triumph dearly won, which soon will lend
An impulse swift and sure to his approaching end.

      In Prometheus Unbound, the opposition of Prometheus (Good) and Jupiter (Evil) represents, "the fundamental antithesis of good and evil, liberty and despotism, love and hate."

      Philosophy of the One Mind: Like Plato, Shelley believed that the world possessed a soul. One mind, one power, one all-pervasive and informing spirit—that is the cardinal principle of Shelley's philosophy and faith. In Adonais, he expresses his faith more passionately:

The one remains, the many change and pass
...The one spirit's plastic stress
Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there
All new successions to the forms they wear
Torturing the unwilling dress that checks its flight
To its own likeness as such may bear.

      Immortality of Soul: Shelley had an inextinguishable faith in the imperishable greatness of the human soul which warms and colors almost every line that he wrote. In Adonais, he says that the spirit of Adonais will return to the Eternal, from where it came and is immortal:

Dual to the dust! but the pure spirit shall flow
Back to the burning fountain whence it came
A portion of the Eternal, which must glow
Through time and change, unquenchably the same.

      But to Symonds, Shelley was no materialist and didn't believe in the extinction of the spiritual element by death. For, he says, Shelley did not acknowledge a formal and precise belief in the immortality of the human soul: "We know nothing; we have no evidence; we cannot express our inmost thoughts; they are incomprehensible even to ourselves." Symonds says that what Shelley believed was the absolute and imperishable existence of the universe as perceived by us in love, beauty and delight. Though the destiny of the self is unknown, these things exist permanently The "conclusion" of The Sensitive Plant expresses the quintessence of his hope upon this most baffling riddle:

For love, and beauty and delight
There is no death nor change; their might
Exceeds our organs, which endure
No light, being themselves obscure.

      Idea of Death: Shelley's idea of death is seen throughout his works. In Stanzas Written in Dejection Near Naples, Ode to Liberty, and Alastor, he expresses his wish to die. In Alastor, Shelley writes:

A restless impulse urged him to embark
And meet long death on the dear ocean's waste
For well he knew that mighty shadow loves
The slimy caverns of the populous deep.

      His Adonais can be considered as a prophecy of his own death by drowning:

The soft sky smiles, the low wind whispers near;
'Tis Adonais calls! Oh, hasten thither.
No more let Life divide what Death can join together.

      Shelley's Optimism: George M. Ridenour observes: "Shelley's optimism is based on chances for extracting benefit from an order of things not obviously concerned with man. As he himself observes at the beginning of his 'proposals for an Association of Philanthropists', Man cannot make occasions, but he may seize those that offer." This is classical, as Shelley knew. He expanded a cynical epigram of the palatine Anthology; "Under the heaving High Cope/Fortune is God, all you endure and do/Depends on circumstances as much as you". But it is possible to reverse the emphasis and point out that it depends on you as much as circumstance, and this is Shelley's usual way He assumes that while man's mind and what it experiences concur only imperfectly, the extent of disproportion can at least be reduced. Art, science, and social organization can reshape the experienced world nearer to the heart's desire. But as we have noticed, Shelley's emphasis falls on what, for want of better terms, we must call the spiritual or psychological. He hopes it is possible to exercise the mind in such a way that, without deception the elements favorable to man may be strengthened, the hostile reduced, and man finds the good he seeks. The strategy is a delicate one involving a complex interplay of active and passive, inner and oute; mind and experience, as in the intricate gearing of Alastor, Intellectual Beauty or Mont Blanc. The movement upward of the mind often involves an imaginative projection of what ought to be, which is itself to some extent received—’ e.g., the vision in Alastor. The passive aspect involves an inner disposition that Shelley usually calls love, roughly the affective correlative to the more consciously shaping power. Together they make up man's capacity for integrated experience, i.e., imagination. Shelley points out that even limited success is evidence that the nonhuman world is at least amenable to human purposes and he hopes that it may suggest an ultimate identity in Nature.

      Conclusion: Many critics who consider Shelley's poetry as wanting in substance refuse to take seriously the philosophy it professes to preach, and do not regard him as a philosophic poet at all. But a systematic study of his poetry reveals the fact that Shelley was a truly philosophic poet and we cannot arrive at a proper appreciation of his poetry if we dismiss his philosophy as frivolous. Baker remarks: "Yet Shelley has not been taken seriously as a philosophical poet, and one often gathers from remarks of his critics, whether inimical or worshipful, that his philosophy does not matter. Yet it does matter and vitally so because it is always either the central matter of his poetry; or the frame of reference in terms of which his poetry has been written."


Q. 1. "Shelley did not preach any fixed or dogmatic philosophy of life. Still he was a successful philosopher". Do you agree?
Q. 2. Write a note on Shelley's philosophy of life.
Q. 3. Comment upon Shelley's idealism.

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