Pessimism & Optimism in P. B. Shelley's Poetry

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      Attitude Towards Life: Shelley's attitude towards life is on the one hand immensely pessimistic, and, on the other, extremely optimistic. He is pessimistic about the present and bears optimistic hopes for the future. Contemplation of the corruption, tyranny and social problems of the present fills him with despondency But he believes in the imminent dawning of a new era—a golden millennium - when all evils will disappear giving place to a reign of love, beauty and happiness. He is, by nature, a hypersensitive person—reacting to all kinds of sentiments and passion with an extreme intensity of feeling. He is a man of many moods, and his poems, depending on the moods, are either expressions of ebullient ecstasy or revelations of an extreme despair.

      A Few Poems of Despair: Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples, illustrates a mood of extreme despair on the part of Shelley. The poem was composed at a time when the poet had already faced a series of personal misfortunes and was left extremely lonely and sad. He had the feeling that he was one "whom men love not”. The happy surroundings of the Bay. of Naples are contrasted with his personal agonies making them sharper and more poignant. It is, therefore, natural that the poem becomes an expression of an intense pessimism on the part of the poet:

Alas! I have not hope nor health,
Nor peace within nor calm around,
Nor that content surpassing wealth
The sage in meditation found,
And walked with inward glory crowned—
Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.

      A Lament (O World! O Life! O Time!) is another poem depicting Shelley's characteristic mood of genuine despair. The poet now finds joy in nothing:

Out of the day and night
A joy has taken flight,
Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar
Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight
No more—O, never more!

      His twice-repeated expression of hopelessness arising from his contemplation of the prospect of joy returning to him—"No more - O, never more"—reveals a genuine and. deep-felt mood of dejection and despondency;
The Indian Serenade is one of Shelley's most beautiful lyrics written in the white heat of passion. The tone underlying the poem is one of gloom and intense pessimism. The sadness of the lovelorn poet in this poem borders on morbidity:

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

      The poet's concept of love here arises from a sense of frustration and his personal agonies. He looks upon love not as a source of comfort, but as a disease of the mind which slowly and steadily leads the victim to his ruin. The lines quoted from the poem remind us of a similar expression of the poet's sufferings in his famous Ode to the West Wind:

Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!,
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

      A Widow Bird Sate Mourning is a short song also characterized by an intense feeling of pathos. The poet describes a widow bird in a scene of wintry desolation where the wind is frozen, the stream is freezing and there is no leaf or flower in the forest and upon the ground. There can be no doubt that the poem is inspired by Shelley's own feeling of loneliness which he equates with that of the bird which, left lonely by the death of its mate, finds an echo of her feelings in the wintry scene. The picture of the desolation is only a concrete expression of the poet's own melancholy. The appeal of the poem lies in the genuine emotion underlying it.

      Hymn to Intellectual Beauty also is an expression of the poet's melancholy. The poet is depressed because this Intellectual Beauty which gives joy to human hearts comes so rarely:

It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance.

      At the moment in which the poem is written, the Spirit of Beauty is gone, leaving the poet in a mood of absolute despair. The world for him has now turned into a "dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate." Despondency shines thorough the subsequent questions he asks:

Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
Why fear and dream and death and birth
Cast on the daylight of this earth
Such gloom,—why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?

      Adonais originates from Shelley's intense feeling of sadness at the premature detail of a fellow poet, John Keats. The sadness underlying the poem is greatly enhanced by the blending of the occasion with the poet's own characteristic feeling of loneliness. This accounts for the subjective, pessimistic elements in the poem. His description of himself:

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

      comes straight from a wounded and agonized heart. He refers to himself as "companionless" and gives an extremely pathetic expression to his helplessness and insufficiency by calling his own spirit:

A love in desolation masked; a Power
Girt round with weakness;—it can scarce uplift
The weight of the superincumbent hour;
It is a dying lamp, a falling shower;
A breaking billow.

      Shelley's pessimism reaches its peak when in the last Stanza of the elegy; he forecasts an early death for himself: spirit's bark is driven
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given.

      A Few Poems of Joy: Most of Shelley's poems are sad in tone and as such he is regarded as "the singer of endless sorrows." But this is not true of all his poems. Whenever he writes of the future of mankind, he turns ecstatically optimistic.

      In Ode to the West Wind, the poet begins his invocation in a buoyant mood. He looks upon the Wind as the destroyer of the present order and ushered of a new one. In the course of the poem, he suddenly remembers his own plight:

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

      and the tone turns pessimistic. But the 
subsequent thought of the future at once turns his melancholy into ecstatic rapture and he ends the poem with one of the most optimistic and memorable prophecies about the future of mankind:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

      The ecstasy arises out of his ardent belief in the imminent regeneration of mankind and the end of all evils. He hopes that all forms of tyranny and oppression will be replaced, in the millennium to come, by all-round 'happiness.

      In Hellas, Shelley has a clear and sublime vision of the future of mankind. His prophecy of the golden millennium, envisaged in Ode to the West Wind, finds a more elaborate and rapturous expression in his poetic drama, Hellas. In the poem, he imagines an age of mental light with the law of love and beauty for its guiding principle. The joyous rapture at the end of the play is born of an intense feeling of optimism:

The world's great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn,
Heaven smiles and faiths and empires gleam
Like wrecks of a dissolving steam.

      Conclusion: We can trace both intense despair and bright optimism in Shelley's poetry. The growth nf these two opposing views can be traced as more or less separate-developments. The optimism resulting from the firm belief in the impending regeneration of mankind develops through Alastor, Prometheus Unbound and Hellas. His mood of despair spreads through his first individual lyric to his last: poem. These two opposing moods are, of course, seen together in a few poems, particularly in Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills. The poem opens in a morbid contemplation of death, but ends in the joyous dream of a land where music and moonlight and feeling are one. He recognizes misery and happiness as two aspects of human life:

Many a green isle needs must be
In the deep wide sea of Misery.

      The poem is basically a sad poem, but an intense optimism, accepting the presence of islands of Delight in the sea of Misery runs through the entire length of the poem. On this aspect of the poem, Elton comments: "The course of Shelley's genius may be regarded as an effort to attain this coalescence, and to find a form that should express at once all he dreamed of for humanity and all, he knew about himself. Cut-off at twenty-nine, he hardly achieved this, but a sort of race between these competing impulses can be traced in his poetic progress."


Q. 1. "Shelley is either in despair or in ecstasy". Discuss with reference to the poems that you have read.
Q. 2. "Whether sad or gay Shelley's poems are always marked by an intensity of feeling". Elucidate.
Q- 3. Is Shelley an optimist or a pessimist? Give reasons for your answer.

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