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Analysis of Percy Bysshe Shelley's Poetry

by Charles Bradlaugh, A. Collins, and J. Watts

Percy Bysshe Shelley (the son and heir of a wealthy English baronet, Sir Timothy Shelley, of Castle Goring, in the county of Sussex) was born at Field Place, near Horsham, in that county, on the 4th of August, 1792. Ushered into the world in the midst of wealth and fashion, with all the advantages of family distinction, the future of Shelley's life appeared a bright one; but the sunshine of the morning only served to render the darkness which came over his noontide more dark, and to make poor Shelley still more susceptible of the hardships he had to encounter. First educated at Eton, his spirit there manifested itself by an unflinching opposition to the fagging system, and by revolt against the severe discipline of the school; in his "Revolt of Islam" Shelley has thus portrayed his feeling:—

     "I do remember well the hour which burst
     My spirit's sleep; a fresh May dawn it was
     When I walked forth upon the glittering grass
     And wept, I knew not why: until there rose
     From the near school-room voices that, alas!
     Were but one echo from a world of woes,
     The harsh and grating strife of tyrants and of foes.

     And then I clasped my hands and looked around,
     And none was near to mock my streaming eyes,
     Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground;
     So, without shame, I spake—' I will be wise,
     And just, and free, and mild, if in me lies
     Such power, for I grow weary to behold
     The selfish, and the strong still tyrannize
     Without reproach or check.'"


     And from that hour did I, with earnest thought,
     Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore;
     Yet nothing that ray tyrants knew or taught
     I cared to learn, but from that secret store
     Wrought linked armour for my soul, before
     It might walk forth to war among mankind."

From Eton, Shelley went to Oxford, and while there he, scarce at the age of eighteen, published a volume of political rhymes, entitled "Margaret Nicholson's Remains," the said Margaret being a woman who tried to assassinate George III. He also wrote a pamphlet in defence of Atheism. A copy of this pamphlet he caused to be sent to the head of each of the colleges in Oxford, with a challenge to discuss and answer.—The answer to this was the edict which expelled Shelley from Oxford, and at the same time placed a wide chasm between him and his family. This breach was still further widened in the following year by his marriage, at the age of nineteen, with a beautiful girl named Westbrook. Although Miss Westbrook was respectfully connected, Shelley's aristocratic family regarded this as a mesalliance, and withdrew his pecuniary allowance; and had it not been for the bride's father, who allowed the young couple £200 a year, they would have been reduced to actual poverty. This was an unfortunate marriage for both. After having two children, disagreements arose, and Shelley was separated from his wife. She (like all beautiful women) was soon attacked by the busy tongue of slander, and, unable to bear the world's taunts, committed suicide by throwing herself into a pond, just four years from the date of their marriage. Shelley, on this account, suffered much misery and misrepresentation, and this misery was much increased by his family, who applied to the Court of Chancery, and obtained a decree, by which Shelley was deprived of the custody of his children, on the ground of his Atheism. The same spirit even now pervades the Shelley family, and scarce a copy of his poems can be found in the neighborhood of his birth-place. Shelley afterwards contracted a second marriage with the daughter of Godwin, the author of "Caleb Williams," and Mary Wollstonecroft (who died in giving birth to Shelley's wife), and for sometime the poet resided at Marlow in Buckinghamshire, where he composed the "Revolt of Islam;" and it is a strong proof of the reality of Shelley's poetical pleadings for the oppressed amongst the human race, that he was indefatigable in his attentions to the poor cottagers of his neighborhood; and that he suffered severely from an attack of opthalmia, which was originated in one of his benevolent visits. Nearly the first of Shelley's poems was his "Queen Mab," in which (having in vain struggled to devote himself to metaphysics apart from poetry), he blended his metaphysical speculation with his poetical aspirations. The following quotations are taken from that poem, in which his wonderful command of language is well shown:—

     "There's not one atom of yon earth
          But once was living man;
     Nor the minutest drop of rain,
     That hangeth in its thinnest cloud,
          But flowed in human veins;

     And from the burning plains
     Where Lybian monsters yell,
     From the most gloomy glens
     Of Greenland's sunless clime,
     To where the golden fields
     Of fertile England spread
     Their harvest to the day,
     Thou canst not find one spot
     Whereon no city stood.

          How strange is human pride!
     I tell thee that those living things,
     To whom the fragile blade of grass,
          That springeth in the morn
     And perishes ere noon.

         In an unbounded world;
     I tell thee that those viewless beings.
     Whose mansion is the smallest particle
     Of the impassive atmosphere,
         Think, feel, and live, like man:
     That their affections and antipathies,
         Like his, produce the laws
         Ruling their mortal state;
         And the minutest throb.

     That through their frame diffuses
         The slightest, faintest motion,
         Is fixed and indispensable
         As the majestic laws
         That rule yon rolling orbs.


  How bold the flight of passion's wandering wing,
  How swift the step of reason's firmer tread,
  How calm and sweet the victories of life.
  How terrorless the triumph of the grave!
  How powerless were the mightiest monarch's arm,
  Vain his loud threat and impotent his frown!
  How ludicrous the priest's dogmatic roar!
  The weight of his exterminating curse,
  How light! and his affected charity,
  To suit the pressure of the changing times,
  What palpable deceit!—but for thy aid,
  Religion! but for thee, prolific fiend,
  Who peoplest earth with demons, hell with men,
  And heaven with slaves!

  Thou taintest all thou look'st upon!—The stare,
  Which on thy cradle beamed so brightly sweet,
  Were gods to the distempered playfulness
  Of thy untutored infancy: the trees,
  The grass, the clouds, the mountains, and the sea,

  All living things that walk, swim, creep, or fly,
  Were gods: the sun had homage, and the moon
  Her worshipper.   Then thou becam'st a boy,
  More daring in thy frenzies: every shape,
  Monstrous or vast, or beautifully wild,
  Which, from sensation's relics, fancy culls;
  The spirits of the air, the shuddering ghost,
  The genii of the elements, the powers
  That give a shape to nature's varied works,
  Had life and place in the corrupt belief
  Of thy blind heart—yet still thy youthful hands
  Were pure of human blood.   Then manhood gave
  Its strength and ardor to thy frenzied brain;
  Thine eager gaze scanned the stupendous scene,
  Whose wonders mocked the knowledge of thy pride.

  Their everlasting and unchanging laws
  Reproached thine ignorance.
  Awhile thou stood'st
  Baffled and gloomy; then thou did'st sum up
  The elements of all that thou did'st know.

  The changing seasons, winter's leafless reign,
  The budding of the heaven-breathing trees,
  The eternal orbs that beautify the night,
  The sunrise, and the setting of the moon,
  Earthquakes and wars, and poisons and disease,
  And all their causes, to an abstract point,
  Converging, thou did'st bend, and called it God;
  The self-sufficing, the omnipotent,
  The merciful, and the avenging God!

  Who, prototype of human misrule, sits
  High in Heaven's realm, upon a golden throne,
  Even like an earthly king: and whose dread work,
  Hell gapes forever for the unhappy slaves
  Of fate, whom he created in his sport,
  To triumph in their torments when they fell!

  Earth heard the name; earth trembled, as the smoke
  Of his revenge ascended up to Heaven,
  Blotting the constellations: and the cries
  Of millions, butchered in sweet confidence,
  And unsuspecting peace, even when the bonds
  Of safety were confirmed by wordy oaths,

  Sworn in his dreadful name, rung through the land;
  Whilst innocent babes writhed on thy stubborn spear,
  And thou did'st laugh to hear the mother's shriek
  Of maniac gladness, as the sacred steel
  Felt cold in her torn entrails!

  Religion! thou wert then in manhood's prime;
  But age crept on: one God would not suffice
  For senile puerility; thou fram'dst
  A tale to suit thy dotage, and to glut
  Thy misery-thirsting soul, that the mad fiend
  Thy wickedness had pictured might afford
  A plea for sating the unnatural thirst
  For murder, rapine, violence, and crime,
  That still consumed thy being, even when
  Thou heard'st the step of fate:—that flames might light
  Thy funeral scene, and the shrill horrent shrieks
  Of parents dying on the pile that burned
  To light their children to thy paths, the roar
  Of the encircling flames, the exulting cries
  Of thine apostles, loud commingling there,
       Might sate thy hungry ear
       Even on the bed of death!

  But now contempt is mocking thy gray hairs;
  Thou art descending to the darksome grave,
  Unhonored and unpitied, but by those
  Whose pride is passing by like thine, and sheds
  Like thine, a glare that fades before the sun
  Of truth, and shines but in the dreadful night
  That long has lowered above the ruined world."

Speaking of the Atheist's martyrdom in answer to the spirit of "Ianthe," Shelley makes his fairy say:—

          "There is no God!
  Nature confirms the faith his death-groan sealed.
  Let heaven and earth, let man's revolving race,
  His ceaseless generations, tell their tale;

  Let every part depending on the chain
  That links it to the whole, point to the hand
  That grasps its term!   Let every seed that falls
  In silent eloquence unfold its store
  Of argument.   Infinity within,
  Infinity without, belie creation;
  The exterminate spirit it contains
  Is nature's only God: but human pride
  Is skilful to invent most serious names
  To hide its ignorance.

        The name of God
  Has fenced about all crime with holiness,
  Himself the creature of his worshippers,
  Whose names and attributes and passions change,
  Seeva, Buddh, Foh, Jehovah, Goa, or Lord,
  Even with the human dupes who build his shrines.
  Still serving o'er the war-polluted world
  For desolation's watch-word; whether hosts
  Stain his death-blushing chariot wheels, as on
   Triumphantly they roll, whilst Brahmins raise
  A sacred hymn to mingle with the groans;
  Or countless partners of his powers divide
  His tyranny to weakness: or the smoke
  Of burning towns, the cries of female helplessness,
  Unarmed old age, and youth, and infancy,
  Horribly massacred, ascend to heaven
  In honor of his name; or, last and worst,
  Earth groans beneath religion's iron age,
  And priests dare babble of a God of peace,
  Even whilst their hands are red with guiltless blood,
  Murdering the while, uprooting every germ
  Of truth, exterminating, spoiling all,
  Making the earth a slaughter-house."

"Ianthe's" spirit, however, asks still further, and the ghost of Ahasuerus having been summoned, the question is repeated, "Is there a God?"

  "Ahasuerus.—Is there a God? ay, an Almighty God,
  And vengeful as Almighty!   Once his voice
  Was heard on earth: earth shuddered at the sound,
  The fiery-visaged firmament expressed
  Abhorrence, and the grave of nature yawned
  To swallow all the dauntless and the good
  That dared to hurl defiance at his throne,
  Girt as it was with power.   None but slaves
  Survived,—cold-blooded slaves, who did the work
  Of tyrannous omnipotence: whose souls
  No honest indignation ever urged
  To elevated daring, to one deed
  Which gross and sensual self did not pollute.
  These slaves built temples for the omnipotent fiend,
  Gorgeous and vast: the costly altars smoked
  With human blood, and hideous moans rung
  Through all the long-drawn aisles.   A murderer heard
  His voice in Egypt, one whose gifts and arts
  Had raised him to his eminence in power,
  Accomplice of omnipotence in crime,
  And confidant of the all-knowing one.

  These were Jehovah's words:
  "From an eternity of idleness,
  God, awoke: in seven days toil made earth
  From nothing; rested, and created man.
  I placed him in a paradise, and there
  Planted the tree of evil, so that he
  Might eat and perish, and my soul procure
  Wherewith to sate its malice, and to turn,
  Even like a heartless conqueror of the earth,
  All misery to my fame.   The race of men,
  Chosen to my honor, with impunity,
  May sate the lusts I planted in their heart.
  Here I command thee hence to lead them on,
  Until, with hardened feet, their conquering troops
  Wade on the promised soil through woman's blood,
  And make my name be dreaded through the land.
  Yet ever burning flame and ceaseless woe
  Shall be the doom of their eternal souls,
  With every soul on this ungrateful earth,
  Virtuous or vicious, weak or strong,—even all
  Shall perish, to fulfil the blind revenge
  Which you, to men, call justice, of their God."

       The murderer's brow
  Quivered with horror.
       God omnipotent!
  Is there no mercy? must our punishment
  Be endless? will long ages roll away,
  And see no 'term?   Oh! wherefore hast thou made
  In mockery and wrath this evil earth?
  Mercy becomes the powerful—be but just:
  O God! repent and save.

       "One way remains!
  I will beget a son, and he shall bear
  The sins of all the world: he shall arise
  In an unnoticed corner of the earth,

  And there shall die upon a cross, and purge
  The universal crime; so that the few
  On whom my grace descends, those who are marked
  As vessels to the honor of their God,
  May credit this strange sacrifice, and save
  Their souls alive.    Millions shall live and die
  Who ne'er shall call upon their Saviour's name,
  But, unredeemed, go to the gaping, grave.
  Thousands shall deem it an old woman's tale,
  Such as the nurses frighten babes withal.
  These in a gulph of anguish and of flame
  Shall curse their reprobation endlessly.
  Yet tenfold pangs shall force them to avow,
  Even on their beds of torment, where they howl,
  My honor, and the justice of their doom.
  What then avail their virtuous deeds, their thoughts
  Of purity, with radiant genius bright,
  Or lit with human reason's earthly ray?
  Many are called, but few I will elect.
  Do thou my bidding, Moses!"

In his poem of "Rosalind and Helen," the poet indulges in the following prophecy, which he puts in the mouth of Helen:—

     "Fear not the tyrants shall rule forever,
     Or the priests of the bloody faith;
     They stand on the brink of that mighty river,
     Whose waves they have tainted with death.
     It is fed from the depths of a thousand dells,
     Around them it foams, and rages, and swells;
     And their swords and their sceptres I floating see,
     Like wrecks on the surge of eternity."

Beside the poems mentioned, Shelley wrote "The Cenci," "Alastor," "Prometheus Unbound," and many others, including a beautiful little ode to a "Skylark," and the well-known "Sensitive Plant."

Shelley was a true and noble man—no poet was ever warmed by a more genuine and unforced aspiration.—De Quincey says, "Shelley would, from his earliest manhood, have sacrificed all that he possessed for any comprehensive purpose of good for the race of man. He dismissed all insults and injuries from his memory. He was the sincerest and most truthful of human creatures.

"If he denounced marriage as a vicious institution, that was but another phase of the partial lunacy which affected him: for to no man were purity and fidelity more essential elements in the idea of real love. Again, De Quincey speaks of Shelley's "fearlessness, his gracious nature, his truth, his purity from all flesh-liness of appetite, his freedom from vanity, his diffusive love and tenderness." This testimony is worth much, the more especially when we remember that it is from the pen of Thomas de Quincey, who, while truthfully acknowledging the man, hesitates not to use polished irony, rough wit, and covert sneering, when dealing with the man's uttered thinkings.

"That Shelley understood the true mission of a poet, and the true nature of poetry, will appear from the following extract from one of his prose essays:—"Poetry," he says, "is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds. We are aware of evanescent visitations of thought and feeling, sometimes associated with place and person, sometimes regarding our own mind alone, and always arising unforeseen, and departing unbidden, but elevating andd delightful beyond all expression. Poets are not only subject to these experiences, as spirits of the most refined organization, but they can color all they combine with the evanescent lines of this ethereal world; a word, a trait in the representation of a scene or passion will touch the enchanted cord, and reanimate in those who have ever experienced these emotions, the sleeping, the cold, the buried image of the past. Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life, and veiling them, or in language or in form, sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom their sisters abide—abide, because there is no portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit which they inhabit into the universe of things."

Shelley's beautiful imagery and idealistic drapery is sometimes so accumulated in his poems, that it is difficult to follow him in his thinkings. In his verse he wishes to stand high as a philosophical reasoner, and this, together with his devotion to the cause, which even men of De Quincey's stamp call "Insolent Infidelity," has prevented Shelley from becoming so popular as he might have been.

Shelley lived a life of strife, passed his boyhood and youth in struggling to be free—misunderstood and misinterpreted: and when at last in his manhood happier circumstances were gathering around him, a blast of wind came, and the waves of the sea washed away one who was really and truly "a man and a poet."

On Monday. July 8th, 1822, being then in his 29th year, Shelley was returning from Leghorn to his home at Lerici, in a schooner-rigged boat of his own, with one friend and an English servant; when the boat had reached about four miles from the shore, the storm suddenly rose, and the wind suddenly shifted. From excessive smoothness, all at once the sea was foaming, and breaking, and getting up in a heavy swell. The boat is supposed to have filled to leeward, and (carry-ins: two tons of ballast) to have sunk instantaneously—all on board were drowned. The body of Shelley was washed on shore eight days afterwards, near Via Reggio, in an advanced state of decomposition, and was therefore burned on a funeral pyre in the presence of Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron, Mr. Trelawney, and a Captain Shenley.

Thus died Shelley in the mid day of life, and ere the warm sun of that mid-day could dispel the clouds that had gathered round the morning of his career. The following comparison made between the personal appearance of Shelley and of Byron, by Gilfillan, has been called by De Quincey "an eloquent parallel," and we therefore conclude the present number by quoting it:—

"In the forehead and head of Byron there is more massive power and breadth: Shelley has a smooth, arched, spiritual expression; wrinkle there seems none on his brow; it is as if perpetual youth had there dropped its freshness. Byron's eye seems the focus of pride and lust: Shelley's is mild, pensive, fixed on you, but seeing you through the mist of his own idealism. Defiance curls on Byron's nostril, and sensuality steps his full large lips. The lower features of Shelley's face are frail, feminine, flexible.—Byron's head is turned upwards as if having risen proudly above his contemporaries, he were daring to claim kindred, or demand a contest with a superior order of beings. Shelley's is half bent, in reverence and humility, before some vast vision seen by his own eye alone. Misery erect, and striving to cover its retreat under an aspect of contemptuous fury, is the permanent and pervading expression of Byron's countenance. Sorrow, softened and shaded away by hope and habit, lies like a 'holier day' of still moonshine upon that of Shelley. In the portrait of Byron, taken at the age of nineteen, you see the unnatural age of premature passion; his hair is young, his dress is youthful, but his face is old. In Shelley you see the eternal child, none the less that his hair is grey, and that sorrow seems half his immortality."