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Title: Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • Poetry

  • - Percy Bysshe Shelleys biography
  • - Poetry
  • -- Hymn to Intellectual Beauty
  • -- Ozymandias
  • -- England in 1819
  • -- To a Skylark

Percy Bysshe Shelleys biography
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on August 4,
    1792 at Field Place, near Horsham in Sussex, to
    Sir Timothy Shelley and Elizabeth Pilfold
    following their marriage in October of 1791.
    Percy was the eldest of six children John, Mary,
    Elizabeth, Hellen, Margaret.
  • Being of a wealthy family, Percy became
    heir to the 2nd baronet of Castle Goring in 1815
    and received much of his early education by
    tutor, Reverend Thomas Edwards of Horsham. In
    1802, Shelley entered the Sion House Academy of
    Brentford before heading to Eton College in 1804
    and on April 10, 1810 to the University of
  • While at Oxford, Shelley was published for
    the first time Gothic novel, Zastrozzi (1810).
    The same year, Shelley and his sister Elizabeth
    Co-published Original Poetry by Victor and
    Cazire. At Oxford, Shelley and another, possibly
    Thomas Jefferson Hogg, published a collection of
    verse, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret
    Nicholson. And in 1811 Shelley published a
    pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, which led to
    his expulsion from Oxford on March 25, 1811 along
    with Hogg.
  • Shelley however, could have been reinstated
    if he recanted his views, but refused. This led
    to a breakdown between himself and his father's
  • At the young age of 19, just four months
    after his expulsion, Shelley eloped to Scotland
    with a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Harriet Westbrook.
    Shelley invited his friend Hogg along with his
    wife to share their household and engage in open
    marriage activities. However, Harriet refused to
    be apart of such actions, so the couple left to
    live in the Lake District.

  • Being distracted by political events,
    Shelley left to Ireland and began spreading his
    radical ideas, giving him much attention, however
    unfavorable, of the British government.
  • The following years, Shelley wrote and
    published Queen Mab. At this point the Shelleys
    marriage was an unhappy one. Often Shelley would
    leave his wife and two children while visiting
    William Godwin's home and bookshop in London.
    While there, he met and fell in love with his
    daughter, Mary.
  • In July 1814, Shelley eloped once again with
    a 16-year-old, Mary. The two brought along Mary's
    step-sister Jane, later named Claire, Clairmont,
    who was also 16. The three crossed much of Europe
    travelling through France and later settling in
    Switzerland. The Shelleys later published a
    journal accounting the adventure.
  • After just six weeks, Shelley, Mary and Jane
    returned to England and found Godwin refusing to
    speak with Mary or Shelley due to their practice
    of free love.
  • In the fall of 1815, Shelley produced
    Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude, a verse
    allegory. The poem held little attention at the
    time, but later became recognized as one of
    Shelley's most powerful works. Around this time,
    much of Shelley's works were influenced by
    Wordsworth's poetry.

  • During the summer of 1816, Shelley and his
    wife Mary made a second trip to Switzerland. The
    couple visited there only because of Mary's
    sister, Claire, had commenced with Lord Byron and
    entered exile in mainland Europe. Around this
    time, Byron had lost much of his interest in
    Claire, but she used the opportunity of meeting
    the Shelley's as bait to head to Geneva.
  • The Shelleys and Byron rented neighbouring
    houses on the shores of Lake Geneva, holding
    regular conversations and influencing much of
    each others poetry. On a boating trip Shelley was
    inspired to write Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,
    his most significant work since Alastor and while
    at the French Alps wrote Mont Blanc. The same
    time, Mary was inspired to begin writing
  • By the end of the summer, the Shelleys and
    Claire returned to England with Claire being
    pregnant. After their returned, Shelly's life was
    tragic. Mary's half-sister Fanny Imlay, committed
    suicide in late Autumn and in December of 1816,
    Shelley's wife, estranged and pregnant, Harriet
    drowned herself in the Serpentine River in Hyde
    Park. Shelley and Mary then married, intending to
    secure Shelley's custody, but the marriage was
    found in vain and the children were handed over
    to foster parents.
  • The Shelleys moved to the village of
    Marlow, Buckinghamshire surrounding themselves
    with a literary circle, including Leigh Hunt and
    John Keats. Shelley's major work during this time
    was Laon and Cythna, a long narrative poem
    attacking religion and featured a pair of
    incestuous lovers. The poem was later edited and
    republished as The Revolt of Islam in 1818.

  • In early 1818, the Shelleys and Claire left
    again to deliver Byron and Claire's daughter to
    Byron where they took up residence in Venice.
    However, in 1818 and 1819 tragedy struck the
    Shelleys again as his son Will died of fever in
    Rome and his infant daughter died during another
  • Over the years the Shelleys travelled
    throughout much of Italy. Shelley completed
    Prometheus Unbound in Rome and spent the rest of
    his summer of 1819 writing tragedy including The
    Masque of Anarchy, Men of England and The Witch
    of Atlas.
  • In 1821, Shelley wrote the elegy Adonais
    which was inspired by the death of Keats. Shelley
    and Byron arranged for James Henry Leigh Hunt to
    accompany them in Italy to create a journal named
    The Liberal, which would disseminate their
    writings and act as a counter to conservative
    periodicals in 1822.
  • The same year, tragedy struck the Shelleys
    once again, this time to Shelley himself. Percy
    Bysshe Shelley died on July 8, 1822 by drowning
    during a sudden storm while sailing back from
    Pisa and Livorno to Lerici in his schooner, the
    Don Juan.
  • Shelley's body washed ashore and was later
    cremated and interred in the Protestant Cemetery
    in Rome. His heart however, was taken by Edward
    Trelawny and given to Mary Shelley, who kept it
    until her dying day.

  • The central thematic concerns of Shelley's
    poetry are largely the same themes that defined
    Romanticism, especially among the younger English
    poets of Shelley's era beauty, the passions,
    nature, political liberty, creativity, and the
    sanctity of the imagination. What makes Shelley's
    treatment of these themes unique is his
    philosophical relationship to his subject
    matterwhich was better developed and articulated
    than that of any other Romantic poet with the
    possible exception of Wordsworthand his
    temperament, which was extraordinarily sensitive
    and responsive even for a Romantic poet, and
    which possessed an extraordinary capacity for
    joy, love, and hope. Shelley fervently believed
    in the possibility of realizing an ideal of human
    happiness as based on beauty, and his moments of
    darkness and despair (he had many, particularly
    in book-length poems such as the monumental Queen
    Mab) almost always stem from his disappointment
    at seeing that ideal sacrificed to human
    weakness. Shelley's intense feelings about beauty
    and expression are documented in poems such as
    "Ode to the West Wind" and "To a Skylark," in
    which he invokes metaphors from nature to
    characterize his relationship to his art. The
    centre of his aesthetic philosophy can be found
    in his important essay A Defence of Poetry, in
    which he argues that poetry brings about moral
    good. Poetry, Shelley argues, exercises and
    expands the imagination, and the imagination is
    the source of sympathy, compassion, and love,
    which rest on the ability to project oneself into
    the position of another person. He writes,

  • A man, to be greatly good, must imagine
    intensely and comprehensively he must put
    himself in the place of another and of many
    others. 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 by replenishing it with thoughts of
    ever new delight, which have the power of
    attracting and assimilating to their own nature
    all other thoughts, and which form new intervals
    and interstices whose void forever craves fresh
    food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the
    organ of the moral nature of man, in the same
    manner as exercise strengthens a limb.
  • No other English poet of the early
    nineteenth century so emphasized the connection
    between beauty and goodness, or believed so
    avidly in the power of art's sensual pleasures to
    improve society

Hymn to Intellectual Beauty
  • Summary
  • The speaker says that the shadow of an
    invisible Power floats among human beings,
    occasionally visiting human hearts--manifested in
    summer winds, or moonbeams, or the memory of
    music, or anything that is precious for its
    mysterious grace. Addressing this Spirit of
    Beauty, the speaker asks where it has gone, and
    why it leaves the world so desolate when it
    goes--why human hearts can feel such hope and
    love when it is present, and such despair and
    hatred when it is gone. He asserts that religious
    and superstitious notions--"Demon, Ghost, and
    Heaven"--are nothing more than the attempts of
    mortal poets and wise men to explain and express
    their responses to the Spirit of Beauty, which
    alone, the speaker says, can give "grace and
    truth to life's unquiet dream."

  • Love, Hope, and Self-Esteem come and go at
    the whim of the Spirit, and if it would only stay
    in the human heart forever, instead of coming and
    going unpredictably, man would be "immortal and
    omnipotent." The Spirit inspires lovers and
    nourishes thought and the speaker implores the
    spirit to remain even after his life has ended,
    fearing that without it death will be "a dark
  • The speaker recalls that when he was a boy,
    he "sought for ghosts," and travelled through
    caves and forests looking for "the departed
    dead" but only when the Spirit's shadow fell
    across him--as he mused "deeply on the lot / Of
    life" outdoors in the spring--did he experience
    transcendence. At that moment, he says, "I
    shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!" He
    then vowed that he would dedicate his life to the
    Spirit of Beauty now he asserts that he has kept
    his vow--every joy he has ever had has been
    linked to the hope that the "awful Loveliness"
    would free the world from slavery, and complete
    the articulation of his words.
  • The speaker observes that after noon the
    day becomes "more solemn and serene," and in
    autumn there is a "lustre in the sky" which
    cannot be found in summer. The speaker asks the
    Spirit, whose power descended upon his youth like
    that truth of nature, to supply "calm" to his
    "onward life"--the life of a man who worships the
    Spirit and every form that contains it, and who
    is bound by the spells of the Spirit to "fear
    himself, and love all humankind."

  • Commentary
  • This lyric hymn, written in 1816, is
    Shelley's earliest focused attempt to incorporate
    the Romantic ideal of communion with nature into
    his own aesthetic philosophy. The "Intellectual
    Beauty" of the poem's title does not refer to the
    beauty of the mind or of the working intellect,
    but rather to the intellectual idea of beauty,
    abstracted in this poem to the "Spirit of
    Beauty," whose shadow comes and goes over human
    hearts. The poem is the poet's exploration both
    of the qualities of beauty (here it always
    resides in nature, for example), and of the
    qualities of the human being's response to it
    ("Love, Hope, and Self-esteem").
  • The poem's process is doubly figurative
    or associative, in that, once the poet abstracts
    the metaphor of the Spirit from the particulars
    of natural beauty, he then explains the workings
    of this Spirit by comparing it back to the very
    particulars of natural beauty from which it was
    abstracted in the first place "Thy light alone,
    like mist o'er mountains driven" "Love, Hope,
    and Self-esteem, like clouds depart..." This is
    an inspired technique, for it enables Shelley to
    illustrate the stunning experience of natural
    beauty time and again as the poem progresses, but
    to push the particulars into the background, so
    that the focus of the poem is always on the
    Spirit, the abstract intellectual ideal that the
    speaker claims to serve.
  • Of course Shelley's atheism is a famous
    part of his philosophical stance, so it may seem
    strange that he has written a hymn of any kind.
    He addresses that strangeness in the third
    stanza, when he declares that names such as
    "Demon, Ghost, and Heaven" are merely the record
    of attempts by sages to explain the effect of the
    Spirit of Beauty--but that the effect has never
    been explained by any "voice from some sublimer
    world." The Spirit of Beauty that the poet
    worships is not supernatural, it is a part of the
    world. It is not an independent entity it is a
    responsive capability within the poet's own mind.
  • If the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" is
    not among Shelley's very greatest poems, it is
    only because its project falls short of the
    poet's extraordinary powers simply drawing the
    abstract ideal of his own experience of beauty
    and declaring his fidelity to that ideal seems
    too simple a task for Shelley. His most important
    statements on natural beauty and on aesthetics
    will take into account a more complicated idea of
    his own connection to nature as an expressive
    artist and a poet, as we shall see in "To a
    Skylark. Nevertheless, the "Hymn" remains an
    important poem from the early period of Shelley's
    maturity. It shows him working to incorporate
    Wordsworthian ideas of nature, in some ways the
    most important theme of early Romanticism, into
    his own poetic project, and, by connecting his
    idea of beauty to his idea of human religion,
    making that theme explicitly his own.

  • Summary
  • The speaker recalls having met a traveller
    "from an antique land," who told him a story
    about the ruins of a statue in the desert of his
    native country. Two vast legs of stone stand
    without a body, and near them a massive,
    crumbling stone head lies "half sunk" in the
    sand. The traveller told the speaker that the
    frown and "sneer of cold command" on the statue's
    face indicate that the sculptor understood well
    the passions of the statue's subject, a man who
    sneered with contempt for those weaker than
    himself, yet fed his people because of something
    in his heart ("The hand that mocked them and the
    heart that fed"). On the pedestal of the statue
    appear the words "My name is Ozymandias, king of
    kings / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and
    despair!" But around the decaying ruin of the
    statue, nothing remains, only the "lone and level
    sands," which stretch out around it, far away.

  • Commentary
  • This sonnet from 1817 is probably
    Shelley's most famous and most anthologized
    poem--which is somewhat strange, considering that
    it is in many ways an atypical poem for Shelley,
    and that it touches little upon the most
    important themes in his oeuvre at large (beauty,
    expression, love, imagination). Still,
    "Ozymandias" is a masterful sonnet. Essentially
    it is devoted to a single metaphor the
    shattered, ruined statue in the desert wasteland,
    with its arrogant, passionate face and
    monomaniacal inscription ("Look on my works, ye
    Mighty, and despair!"). The once-great king's
    proud boast has been ironically disproved
    Ozymandias's works have crumbled and disappeared,
    his civilization is gone, all has been turned to
    dust by the impersonal, indiscriminate,
    destructive power of history. The ruined statue
    is now merely a monument to one man's hubris, and
    a powerful statement about the insignificance of
    human beings to the passage of time. Ozymandias
    is first and foremost a metaphor for the
    ephemeral nature of political power, and in that
    sense the poem is Shelley's most outstanding
    political sonnet, trading the specific rage of a
    poem like "England in 1819" for the crushing
    impersonal metaphor of the statue. But Ozymandias
    symbolizes not only political power--the statue
    can be a metaphor for the pride and hubris of all
    of humanity, in any of its manifestations. It is
    significant that all that remains of Ozymandias
    is a work of art and a group of words as
    Shakespeare does in the sonnets, Shelley
    demonstrates that art and language long outlast
    the other legacies of power. Of course, it is
    Shelley's brilliant poetic rendering of the
    story, and not the subject of the story itself,
    which makes the poem so memorable. Framing the
    sonnet as a story told to the speaker by "a
    traveller from an antique land" enables Shelley
    to add another level of obscurity to Ozymandias's
    position with regard to the reader--rather than
    seeing the statue with our own eyes, so to speak,
    we hear about it from someone who heard about it
    from someone who has seen it. Thus the ancient
    king is rendered even less commanding the
    distancing of the narrative serves to undermine
    his power over us just as completely as has the
    passage of time. Shelley's description of the
    statue works to reconstruct, gradually, the
    figure of the "king of kings" first we see
    merely the "shattered visage," then the face
    itself, with its "frown / And wrinkled lip and
    sneer of cold command" then we are introduced to
    the figure of the sculptor, and are able to
    imagine the living man sculpting the living king,
    whose face wore the expression of the passions
    now inferable then we are introduced to the
    king's people in the line, "the hand that mocked
    them and the heart that fed." The kingdom is now
    imaginatively complete, and we are introduced to
    the extraordinary, prideful boast of the king
    "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" With
    that, the poet demolishes our imaginary picture
    of the king, and interposes centuries of ruin
    between it and us "'Look on my works, ye Mighty,
    and despair!' / Nothing beside remains. Round the
    decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and
    bare, / The lone and level sands stretch far

England in 1819
  • Summary
  • The speaker describes the state of England
    in 1819. The king is "old, mad, blind, despised,
    and dying." The princes are "the dregs of their
    dull race," and flow through public scorn like
    mud, unable to see, feel for, or know their
    people, clinging like leeches to their country
    until they "drop, blind in blood, without a
    blow." The English populace are "starved and
    stabbed" in untilled fields the army is
    corrupted by "liberticide and prey" the laws
    "tempt and slay" religion is Christless and
    Godless, "a book sealed" and the English Senate
    is like "Time's worst statute unrepealed." Each
    of these things, the speaker says, is like a
    grave from which "a glorious Phantom" may burst
    to illuminate "our tempestuous day."

  • Commentary
  • For all his commitment to romantic ideals
    of love and beauty, Shelley was also concerned
    with the real world he was a fierce denouncer of
    political power and a passionate advocate for
    liberty. The result of his political commitment
    was a series of angry political poems condemning
    the arrogance of power, including "Ozymandias"
    and "England in 1819." Like Wordsworth's "London,
    1802," "England in 1819" bitterly lists the flaws
    in England's social fabric in order, King George
    is "old, mad, blind, despised, and dying" the
    nobility ("princes") are insensible leeches
    draining their country dry the people are
    oppressed, hungry, and hopeless, their fields
    untilled the army is corrupt and dangerous to
    its own people the laws are useless, religion
    has become morally degenerate, and Parliament ("A
    Senate") is "Time's worst statute unrepealed."
    The furious, violent metaphors Shelley employs
    throughout this list (nobles as leeches in muddy
    water, the army as a two-edged sword, religion as
    a sealed book, Parliament as an unjust law) leave
    no doubt about his feelings on the state of his
    nation. Then, surprisingly, the final couplet
    concludes with a note of passionate Shelleyean
    optimism from these "graves" a "glorious
    Phantom" may "burst to illumine our tempestuous
    day." What this Phantom might be is not specified
    in the poem, but it seems to hint simultaneously
    at the Spirit of the "Hymn to Intellectual
    Beauty" and at the possibility of liberty won
    through revolution, as it was won in France. (It
    also recalls Wordsworth's invocation of the
    spirit of John Milton to save England in the
    older poet's poem, though that connection may be
    unintentional on Shelley's part both Wordsworth
    and Shelley long for an apocalyptic deus ex
    machina to save their country, but Shelley is
    certainly not summoning John Milton.)

To a Skylark
  • Summary
  • The speaker, addressing a skylark, says that
    it is a "blithe Spirit" rather than a bird, for
    its song comes from Heaven, and from its full
    heart pours "profuse strains of unpremeditated
    art." The skylark flies higher and higher, "like
    a cloud of fire" in the blue sky, singing as it
    flies. In the "golden lightning" of the sun, it
    floats and runs, like "an unbodied joy." As the
    skylark flies higher and higher, the speaker
    loses sight of it, but is still able to hear its
    "shrill delight," which comes down as keenly as
    moonbeams in the "white dawn," which can be felt
    even when they are not seen. The earth and air
    ring with the skylark's voice, just as Heaven
    overflows with moonbeams when the moon shines out
    from behind "a lonely cloud."

  • The speaker says that no one knows what the
    skylark is, for it is unique even "rainbow
    clouds" do not rain as brightly as the shower of
    melody that pours from the skylark. The bird is
    "like a poet hidden / In the light of thought,"
    able to make the world experience "sympathy with
    hopes and fears it heeded not." It is like a
    lonely maiden in a palace tower, who uses her
    song to soothe her lovelorn soul. It is like a
    golden glow-worm, scattering light among the
    flowers and grass in which it is hidden. It is
    like a rose embowered in its own green leaves,
    whose scent is blown by the wind until the bees
    are faint with "too much sweet." The skylark's
    song surpasses "all that ever was, / Joyous and
    clear and fresh," whether the rain falling on the
    "twinkling grass" or the flowers the rain
  • Calling the skylark "Sprite or Bird," the
    speaker asks it to tell him its "sweet thoughts,"
    for he has never heard anyone or anything call up
    "a flood of rapture so divine." Compared to the
    skylark's, any music would seem lacking. What
    objects, the speaker asks, are "the fountains of
    thy happy strain?" Is it fields, waves,
    mountains, the sky, the plain, or "love of thine
    own kind" or "ignorance or pain"? Pain and
    languor, the speaker says, "never came near" the
    skylark it loves, but has never known "love's
    sad satiety." Of death, the skylark must know
    "things more true and deep" than mortals could
    dream otherwise, the speaker asks, "how could
    thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?"
  • For mortals, the experience of happiness
    is bound inextricably with the experience of
    sadness dwelling upon memories and hopes for the
    future, mortal men "pine for what is not" their
    laughter is "fraught" with "some pain" their
    "sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest
    thought." But, the speaker says, even if men
    could "scorn / Hate and pride and fear," and were
    born without the capacity to weep, he still does
    not know how they could ever approximate the joy
    expressed by the skylark. Calling the bird a
    "scorner of the ground," he says that its music
    is better than all music and all poetry. He asks
    the bird to teach him "half the gladness / That
    thy brain must know," for then he would overflow
    with "harmonious madness," and his song would be
    so beautiful that the world would listen to him,
    even as he is now listening to the skylark.

  • Commentary
  • If the West Wind was Shelley's first
    convincing attempt to articulate an aesthetic
    philosophy through metaphors of nature, the
    skylark is his greatest natural metaphor for pure
    poetic expression, the "harmonious madness" of
    pure inspiration. The skylark's song issues from
    a state of purified existence, a Wordsworthian
    notion of complete unity with Heaven through
    nature its song is motivated by the joy of that
    uncomplicated purity of being, and is unmixed
    with any hint of melancholy or of the
    bittersweet, as human joy so often is. The
    skylark's unimpeded song rains down upon the
    world, surpassing every other beauty, inspiring
    metaphor and making the speaker believe that the
    bird is not a mortal bird at all, but a "Spirit,"
    a "sprite," a "poet hidden / In the light of
  • In that sense, the skylark is almost an
    exact twin of the bird in Keats's "Ode to a
    Nightingale" both represent pure expression
    through their songs, and like the skylark, the
    nightingale "wast not born for death." But while
    the nightingale is a bird of darkness, invisible
    in the shadowy forest glades, the skylark is a
    bird of daylight, invisible in the deep bright
    blue of the sky. The nightingale inspires Keats
    to feel "a drowsy numbness" of happiness that is
    also like pain, and that makes him think of
    death the skylark inspires Shelley to feel a
    frantic, rapturous joy that has no part of pain.
    To Keats, human joy and sadness are inextricably
    linked, as he explains at length in the final
    stanza of the "Ode on Melancholy." But the
    skylark sings free of all human error and
    complexity, and while listening to his song, the
    poet feels free of those things, too.

  • Structurally and linguistically, this poem
    is almost unique among Shelley's works its
    strange form of stanza, with four compact lines
    and one very long line, and its lilting, songlike
    diction ("profuse strains of unpremeditated art")
    work to create the effect of spontaneous poetic
    expression flowing musically and naturally from
    the poet's mind. Structurally, each stanza tends
    to make a single, quick point about the skylark,
    or to look at it in a sudden, brief new light
    still, the poem does flow, and gradually advances
    the mini-narrative of the speaker watching the
    skylark flying higher and higher into the sky,
    and envying its untrammeled inspiration--which,
    if he were to capture it in words, would cause
    the world to listen.