Friday, 4 August 2017

Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792 – July 8, 1822) - Revolutionary Romantic Poet

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Revolutionary Romantic poet was born on this day in 1792 in Broadbridge Heath near Horsham in Sussex  into an aristocratic family. His father, Timothy Shelley, was a Sussex squire and a member of Parliament.
At ten, he left home to study at Syon House Academy and just two years later enrolled at Eton College. Within his first year at Eton, he had already published two novels and two volumes of poetry. Although born into the ruling class himself, Shelley was quick to relinquish his birth-right  and ally himself with the ordinary people with whom he identified and whose cause he identified.
In 1810, Shelley enrolled at the University of Oxford. But after just a few months, he was called to the office of a dean who demanded he acknowledge his contribution to an atheist pamphlet. He denied authoring any part of it but was expelled.
Shelley's beliefs were controversial to those who surrounded him, he was  an individualist and non conformist idealist who rejected the institutions of family, church, marriage and the Christian faith and rebelled against all forms of tyranny, he espoused atheism, vegetarianism as well as political and sexual freedom.
He eloped with a 16-year-old girl named Harriet Westbrook, but soon lost interest and became interested in a schoolteacher named Elizabeth Hitchener, who became the inspiration for his first important poem, Queen Mab  which became known as the ‘Chartist’s Bible’
Despite this, he remained with Harriet and they had two children together, but  he left her for another woman before the second was born. The other woman was Mary Godwin, who he had fallen hopelessly in love with,the daughter of famed political activist and writer William Godwin and  the philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft  who was responsible for the work A Vindication of the Rights of Women . Mary herself was an English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer, best known nowadays for her Gothic novel Frankenstein.
The two fled Godwin, who disapproved of their relationship, to go to Paris. In 1816, Shelley accompanied Mary on a trip to Switzerland for the summer with Mary's stepsister Claire
who was dating Lord Byron at the time. Shelley became close with the Romantic poet, and wrote Hymn to Intellectual Beauty upon his return. Not long after, he took a trip through the French Alps with Byron and later wrote Mont Blanc.
Upon returning to England, it was discovered that Shelley's wife, Harriet, had committed suicide. This left Shelley free to marry Mary. However, he lost custody of his children when the courts ruled they would be better off with foster parents. Shelley and Mary moved to Buckinghamshire where they befriended John Keats and Leigh Hunt.
Shelley, this Romantic  poet, is also called a rebel for his idea of revolution in his poetry. As The French Revolution dominated all politics in those years, unlike Wordsworth or Coleridge, Shelley never abandoned the ideals of the revolution, though he was appalled by the dictatorship of Napoleon. Shelley only experienced the revolution at second hand through, but when he looked back, all he could see was the flame of revolution still flickering in spite of the terror, war and disease. His long poem, The Revolt of Islam, written at the height of his powers, is clear on one matter above all else,that the ideas of progress, which inspired the revolution, will triumph once again. Here is the preface to it :-

The preface to The Revolt of Islam:
Thoughts of great deeds were mine, dear Friend, when first

The clouds which wrap this world from youth did pass.
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 schoolroom, 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 —
— But 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 tyrannise
Without reproach or check.’ I then controlled
My tears, my heart grew calm, and I was meek and bold...

Is it that now my inexperienced fingers
But strike the prelude of a loftier strain?
Or, must the lyre on which my spirit lingers
Soon pause in silence, ne’er to sound again,
Though it might shake the Anarch Custom’s reign,
And charm the minds of men to Truth’s own sway
Holier than was Amphion’s? I would fain
Reply in hope — but I am worn away,
And Death and Love are yet contending for their prey.

In the "Ode to The West Wind" he desires a social change and the West Wind is to his symbol of change. This poem, written in iambic pentameter, begins with three stanzas describing the wind's effects upon earth, air and ocean. The last two stanzas are Shelley speaking directly to the wind, asking for its power, to lift  him like a leaf, or a cloud and make him his companion in its wanderings. He asks the wind to take his thoughts and spread them all over the world so that the youth are awoken with his ideas.
At  the end of the poem he is seen very much optimistic when he say that his revolutionary ideas must bring a change and the new order will be established. The wind blows through the jungle and produces music out to the dead leaves. Shelley requests it to create music out of his heart and to inspire him to write great poetry, which may create a revolution in the hearts of men . He wants the Wind to scatter his revolutionary message in the world, just as it scatters cries and sparks from a burning fire. His thoughts may not be as fiery as they once were, but they still have the power to inspire men. He tells the Wind to take message to sleeping world, that if winter comes, spring cannot be far behind.  It is at the very darkest of times, Shelley seems to suggest, that change takes place; that, in effect, things must get worse before they can possible get better. After bad  days come good days. Here he says, " If winter comes , can spring be far behind?"

Ode to the West Wind

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 odors plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!


Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapors, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

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?                         

We also find Shelley’s revolutionary zeal in ode “To A Skylark”. According to Shelley, the bird, Skylark, that pours spontaneous melody from heaven and sours higher and higher can never be a bird. It is for the poet, a joyful spirit that begins its upward flight at sunrise and becomes invisible at evening like the stars of the sky that become invisible in day light. Moreover, it is compared with the beans of the moon whose presence is rather felt than seen. It's a heavenly bird and by singing it spreads its influence through the world.
In the opening stanza, the bind is seen as a "blithe spirit" that "pourest thy full heart/ In profuse strains of unpremeditated art." The words "Pourest thy full heart" mean that the bird pours out its heart in song and with "In profuse strains of unpremeditated art", Shelley refers to the spontaneous flow of music which comes from the Skylark. There is nothing artificial in its music, it overflows profusely from its heart. And Shelley says as a spirit of revolution it spreads it revolutionary message as the moon spreads its beam.

To a Skylark

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.

In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun
O'er which clouds are bright'ning,
Thou dost float and run,
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.

The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of Heaven
In the broad daylight
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight:

Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear
Until we hardly see--we feel that it is there.

All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud.
As, when night is bare,
From one lonely cloud
The moon rains out her beams, and heaven is overflowed.

What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.

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:

Like a high-born maiden
In a palace tower,
Soothing her love-laden
Soul in secret hour
With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower:

Like a glow-worm golden
In a dell of dew,
Scattering unbeholden
Its aerial hue
Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view:

Like a rose embowered
In its own green leaves,
By warm winds deflowered,
Till the scent it gives
Makes faint with too much sweet these heavy-winged thieves.

Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
Rain-awakened flowers,
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.

Teach us, sprite or bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.

Chorus hymeneal
Or triumphal chaunt
Matched with thine, would be all
But an empty vaunt--
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.

What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?

With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be:
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest, but ne'er knew love's sad satiety.

Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?

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.

Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

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!                         

Then there is The Masque of Anarchy, which he penned in the wake of the Peterloo massacre, which ends with this fiery appeal to the working class: "

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are manythey are few."

It is perhaps one of the best known pieces of poetry in any movement of the oppressed all over the world. The Chartists knew it in the 19th century and so did the striking women garment workers in 1909 New York. It was chanted on demonstrations in Tiananmen Square (1989) and Tahrir Square (2011).The last lines were adapted to ‘We Are Many’ by the campaign against the Poll Tax. In February 2003 a ‘great assembly’ took place ,the huge anti-war demo in Hyde Park which echoed around the world in the first global protest. Jeremy Corbyn was one of the speakers on that occasion, and it is only fitting that he should turn to Shelley to give a voice to his campaign and  at end of the election campaign on June 7, 2017, Corbyn gave  a speech in Islington which ended with him quoting from it.again.
It  is loved so much  because,  it reminds us to remember that we are not alone but part of the vast majority, and that being many we can win.But we don’t always do that. For most of our lives we feel fragmented, cut off ,we are divided from each other by ethnicity, sex, age or some other way in which the ruling class assures us that we are isolated and different from those we should be united with. When we are on a demo, when we know we are many, we see the truth of the lines and we know that we can rise like lions.
Here is a link to an earlier post on Peterloo and this great poem :-
Today, Percy Bysshe Shelley is an emblem of the Romantic movement and one of the lights of English culture, his poems memorized by schoolchildren, his life honored with a memorial in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. That wasn’t always the case, however. In his own day, Shelley was widely loathed, seen as an immoral atheist and a traitor to his class for his revolutionary politics. His work was damned as well, receiving scathing reviews rooted as much in disapproval of his politics and personal life as in the verse itself.  Some of his reviews give a fair indication of what the literary and political establishment thought of him at the time: "Mr Shelley ... would overthrow the constitution ... would pull down our churches and burn our bibles ... marriage he cannot endure."
The reviewers hated him because of his political opinions, just as many academics came to adore him in later years despite, or more rarely because of, his politics. During his lifetime, because of his revolutionary politics, he had the utmost difficulty in getting anything published - Queen Mab did not sell any copies at all. During all his life, this "greatest of English lyrical poets" made precisely £40 from his writing, and most of that was from a novel he wrote while still at school. 
It is true that Shelley left behind him a trail of destruction, his personal relations were tainted by an unshakeable conviction that his views were always right, and many people who became close to him suffered as a result of that intimacy. And yet Shelley the poet was capable of expressing in memorable language ideas that were shocking and anarchic at the time but which have since become part of our common beliefs about the basic right of the individual to freedom  and to this  day his words and poetry continue to endure.
Shelley’s short life-story is wild, outrageous, shocking, revolutionary and unconventional, a
revolutionary reformer who wanted  to change the old order and to find universal happiness, who  lest we forget  was also a great Nature lover,  merging himself in the beauty of the world around him.
On July 6, 1822,  his small, custom-built sailing boat (dubbed Don Juan) during a stormy voyage sank off the coast of Italy.Shelley drowned a moth short of 30 . His body was washed ashore at Viareggio, where, in the presence of Lord Byron he was burned on the beach.
Shelley’s ashes were later buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, and the stone bears the inscription:

Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

In concluding  it can be said that Shelley was a true revolutionary poet whose message bears the ideas of revolution, whose powerful words still carry a marked impression on our world.

Paul Foot Speaks! The Revolutionary Percy Shelley. Paul's remarkable 1981 talk to London's Marxism Conference.

Further Reading :-

Red Shelley - Paul Foot, Bookmarks, 1984

Shelley, A life Story - Edmund Blunden, 1946

Jacqueline Mulhallen, Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (Pluto 2015)

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