Percy Bysshe Shelley

September 12, 2006


Considered the most radical Romantic poet, in poetry and in politics
Very aristocratic
He saw the petty tyranny of schoolmasters and schoolmates as representative of man’s general inhumanity to man
Dedicated his life to a war against injustice and oppression: called ‘mad Shelley’ by his schoolmates
Was expelled from Oxford with friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg for the publication of a pamphlet titled “The Necessity of Atheism”
Attributed the evils of society to humanity’s own moral failures and grounded the possibilty of social reform in the redeeming power of love
Repeatedly charged with intellectual and emotional immaturity
Drowned in the Gulf of Lerici off the Italian coast when he was thirty years old
John Murray on Shelley:

“You are all brutally mistaken about Shelley, who was, without exception, the best and least selfish man I ever knew.”


O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being, / Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead / Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, / Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O Thou, / Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low, / Each like a corpse within its grave, until / Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her Clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill / (Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air) / With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everrywhere; / Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!

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! / Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

-Ode to the West Wind

Apostrophe to the wind
Wind as a representation of poetry or poetic inspiration
The wind may speak only through the poet

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert- / That from Heaven, or near it, / Pourest thy full heart / In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Higher still and higher / From the earth thou springest / Like a cloud of fire; / The blue deep thou wingest, / And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

Like a Poet Hidden / In the light of thought, / Singing hymns unbidden, / Till the world is wrought / To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:

We look before and after, / And pine for what is not- / Our sincerest laughter / With some pain is fraught- / Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
Yet if we could scorn / Hate and pride and fear; / If we were things born / Not to shed a tear, / I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

Teach me half the gladness / That thy brain must know, / Such harmonious madness / From my lips would flow / The world should listen then- as I am listening now.

-To a Sky-Lark

The European skylark is a small bird that sings only in flight, often when it is too high to be visible
The poet is most like the sky-lark: the poet’s job is to reveal uncommon emotions to the reader
Humans can only feel intense emotion through comparison, unlike the sky-lark
The poem ends with the speaker looking to the bird, not the poet

“According to one mode of regarding those two classes of mental action, which are called reason and imagination, the former may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another, however produced; and the latter, as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to colour them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.”

“But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and producs not melody, alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them.”

“In the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression.”

“But Poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance and architecure and statuary and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society and the inventors of the arts of life and the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion.”

“Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which hey appeared, were called in the earlier epochs of the world legislators or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, ,and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of the latest time.”

“A Poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not.”

“A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.”

“Time, which destroys the beauty and the use of the story of particular facts, stript of the poetry which should invest them, augments that of Poetry, and for ever develops new and wonderful applications of the eternal truth which it contains.”

“Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”

“Poetry is ever accompanied with pleasure: all spirits on which it falls, open themselves to receive the wisdom which is mingled with its delight.”

“A Poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they aremoved and softened, yet know not whence or why.”

“A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many other; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination…”

“A Poet therefore would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetial creations, which participate in neither.”

“All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient. The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’ But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions… It makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.”

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.”

-A Defense of Poetry

Response to friend’s (Peacock) satirical critique on Romantic Poetry
All imaginitive thought is poetry
Parallels with Plato’s interest in truths not available through the senses: Shelley’s Poet is Plato’s Philosopher


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