P. B. Shelley's Use of Myth in Poetry

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      Myth and Poetry: By 'myth' we usually mean a purely fictitious narrative involving supernatural persons etc. and embodying popular ideas on natural phenomena or such other things. The origin of myths lies in the ancient days when people, unable to form abstract conceptions, described the phenomena of nature in terms applicable to their personal actions. The introduction of myths in poetry is, of course, a much later development. Mr. Henri Frankfort and Mrs. H.A. Frankfort, in their book Myth and Reality, have referred to the functions of myths in poetry: "Myth is a form of poetry which transcends poetry in that it proclaims a truth; a form of reasoning which transcends reasoning in that it wants to bring about the truth it proclaims, a form of action, of ritual behavior, which does not find its fulfillment in the act but must proclaim and elaborate a poetic form of myth. Like Blake, Shelley is essentially mythopoetic. Of all the Romantic poets, he is the greatest myth-maker. No other poet has used the ancient myths to such advantage as he has done in his nature and philosophical poems.

      Shelley and the Ancient Myth-maker: In the ancient myths the actions of nature are impersonated and described as doings of men or animals. The dawn is, in such myths, regarded as a being flying before the rising sun. Summer and winter are presented as powerful beings conquering each other by turn with a regularity; Such impersonations of the forces of nature still exist, but they no longer live in the faith of reason. Shelley's greatness as a myth-maker lies in his ability to keep himself detached from the older implications of the myths and make new myths out of such forces of Nature. His myths are refreshing because they come in a spontaneous, natural way; and not out of a conscious and laborious effort on the part of the poet. Clutton-Brock has paid a glowing tribute to Shelley's myth-making faculty: "To most of us, the forces of nature have but little reality. But for Shelley these forces had as much reality as human beings have for most of us, and he found the same kind of intense significance in their manifestations of beauty that we find in the beauty of human beings or of great works of art There is this difference between Shelley and the primitive myth-makers—that they seem to have thought of the forces of nature as disguised beings more powerful than themselves but still in all essentials human, or else as manifestations of the power of such beings. But to Shelley the west wind was still a wind, and the Cloud a Cloud, however intense a reality they might have for him. In his poetry they keep their own character and do not take on human attributes, though their own qualities may be expressed in imagery taken from human beings. When he addresses the West Wind. . . . we are not wrought upon to feel anything human in the wind's power; but, if we are susceptible to Shelley's magic, we are filled with a new sense of the life and significance and reality of nature.".

      Use of Myth in The Cloud: The Cloud is a wonderful illustration of Shelley's myth-making power. In this poem, Shelley personifies the Cloud which is a familiar sight to all of us and then goes on to give a new significance to all its changes. The autobiographical and scientific presentation of the myth has lent it immense credibility and has created a new romance of the Sky:

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the sky
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores,
I change, but I cannot die.

      S.A. Brooke regards this poem as the most astonishing example of Shelley's myth-making power. Of this poem he says: "It is not only a myth of the Cloud; the Cloud is accompanied by a host of other impersonations of nature—the sanguine sunrise with his meteor eyes, the orbed maiden of the moon, the imprisoned giant of the thunder the lightning which runs through the sky to find his love,—all are touched into life, and yet there is not one phrase, not one adjective which is contradictory of, or which does not illuminate, natural fact".

      Myth in To Night: To Night is another fine example of Shelley's ability to create new myths. He does not pursue Greek legend in this poem, but himself creates "forms more real than living men, Nurslings of immortality." While admiring the mythical element in this poem, Fowler has observed: "Personifications of Day, Night, Sleep and Death are common enough in the English poets in imitation of Classical poetry; but they are apt to be frigid. The remarkable thing about Shelley's personifications is that they are more real to him than their ancient counterparts were to the great majority of the classical poets themselves. Perhaps the best help to the appreciation of the most delicate hues would be the study of some of the allegorical paintings of Burne Jones." In the poem, Shelley has strengthened his myths by lending life and feeling to some abstractions and by distributing relationships among them.

      Myth in Adonaist Adonais illustrates Shelley's capacity to feel Nature and its doings. The poem is full of myths, that is, personifications of Nature. Nature, according to Shelley is linked with mankind in an inseparable bond of love and sympathy. Thunder, ocean, winds, echo, spring and other natural phenomena have all been personified and made to participate in the mourning for Adonais. The myth of Morning, lamenting the death of Adonais, is but one example of such powerful, credible, and typically Shelleyan myths:

Morning sought
Her eastern watch-tower, and her hair unbound
Wet with the tears should adorn the ground,
Dimmed the aerial eyes that kindle day

      Myth of the Moon: Shelley's is unparalleled in the sphere of making myths out of Nature mainly because he has a greater imaginative insight into Nature than any other poet. The natural phenomena occurring through a great volume of space have always attracted him. The moon, in particular, has always been an object of interest to Shelley. He has referred to the moon as a living and feeling object in many of his poems. In Prometheus Unbound, the moon has been given a human shape. It is presented there as the lover of Earth, indulging in an erotic myth. The moon is imagined as a young maiden in another poem, The Could:

That orbed maiden with fire laden
Whom mortals call the Moon.

      The personification of the moon becomes more credible and more realistic in the lyric To The Moon. In the poem, the moon looks more human and commonplace. The Moon looks pale because, the poet explains, she is weary of "climbing heaven and gazing on the earth". The "gazing on the earth" also implies a relationship of love between them. She is sad, like any human being, when she is lonely She keeps changing her form because she is restless, like human beings, at finding none worthy of her unchanging love. Shelley's myth of the moon may not agree with modem scientific explanations of the satellite, but it is at once unique and appealing.

      Shelley has a great Myth-making Power. In his treatment of Nature and some of his philosophical poems, he makes use of old myths. Sometimes he modifies these myths to his best advantage. In The Revolt of Islam and Prometheus Unbound, he used myths which suited his purpose for formulating his conception. Referring to his myth-making faculty. Moody and Lovett remarks: “Another main peculiarity of Shelley as a poet is what may be called his myth-making power. His poetry is full of personifications which, although in original not different from those which fill eighteenth-century poetry with dead abstractions like Smiling Hope and Ruddy Cheer, are to vitally imagined that they become real spiritual presences, inspiring wonder and awe. Such are the Spirits of the Hours in Prometheus; such the spirit of the west wind in the Ode just mentioned, the latter a sublime piece of myth-making. It is in Adonais, however, that this quality is perhaps best exhibited. He mourns over the dead body of Keats, in whose memory the elegy was written, there gather Splendours and Glooms, grief-clad Morning and wailing Spring, desolate Hours, winged Persuasions and veiled Destinies, and the lovely-Breams which were the exhalation of the poet’s spirit, in life. It would be hard to find a more signal instance than these ‘personifications’ afford, of the way in which a great poet can revivify an outworn and discredited poetic tradition. The elegy is of all Shelley’s poems the one which would most have satisfied Keats’s own jealous artistic sense. It is to be grouped with Mliton’s Lycidas, Tennyson’s, In Memoriam and Arnold’s Thyrsis as one of the four supreme threnodies in English verse.”


Q. 1. "Shelley's myth-making is a landmark in the progress of Shelley's criticism". Elucidate.
Q. 2. '" Shelley's nature-myths transcend reason in lacking human attributes and proclaim a new truth, a new sense of the reality of Nature''. Discuss with illustrations.
Q. 3. Write an essay on Shelley as a myth-maker.

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