Percy Bysshe (pronounced Bish) Shelley was the poet that made me fall in love with poetry, and everything a poem could be. I remember studying English Literature outside of my normal A Levels in case I had to take an exam to get into University to study it. That was at the time I thought I might apply to Oxford or Cambridge, before I was discouraged from that notion by someone who should have given me better advice. In the end it worked out and I’ve had a wonderful Higher Education experience… but that’s a story for another time, and nothing to do with Shelley.
The poem in question was ‘Ozymandias’, possibly one of the most well known poems by Shelley, although there are countless others that are known so well by so many. It is a beautiful poem, and one I have adored ever since. It was inspired by the early nineteenth century discovery of the treasures of antiquity, and explorations in the Near East.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
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 away.
I have always been fascinated on thinking about the position of humanity in the grand scheme of things, and this poem resonates with this idea throughout. Everything exists within it’s own time, and once that time is done then it fades into obscurity. This poem also bares the stark warning to those who would seek to put their pride in grandiose things, because as time passes those things have no meaning at all. What you take from that is left up to the reader, but the message in the poem is clear; ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ – be afeared, for everything is finite. It also is clear about the power of Mother Nature, in that eventually everything returns to dust, and it matters not how great we build. I actually find something rather comforting in that.
Shelley was a Romantic poet – his poetry is filled with emotion that reaches the highest of joys, and the most darkest of depressions. Yet Shelley did not attribute any of these emotions, joys, or darkness to any God. He was an avowed athiest, something which caused a dramatic rift between him and his doting father, who had previously been much invested in his son’s literary interests. Shelley was expelled from Oxford after he published a pamphlet about the ‘burden of proofs’ – a concept first raised by skeptical philosophers such as David Hume* and Sir John Locke.
Shelley was what one might call a “hippy” before his time. He believed in concepts such as free love, and the lack of a God, and many radical political ideas. Despite this, he clearly believed in the existence of the human soul, a theme which is plain throughout his Queen Mab (alongside themes of capitalism, vegetarianism (yes, you did read that right), the church, monarchy, marriage etc.). His politics were controversial for his time, and many publishers were afraid to publish his work for fear of being accused of blasphemy or sedition.
Shelley did not seem to give much thought for the emotions of others in his life. He married his first wife, Harriet, young. Upon meeting Mary Godwin (daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft), he quickly fell in love with her and set Harriet aside. He offered to have Harriet live as his sister (A/N – reminds me of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves “honorable sister”), but she was heartbroken, and never recovered from the shock of it, driving her to commit suicide by drowning herself in 1816. Shelley’s love life was a mess – Harriet had borne his son, Charles, in 1814, whilst Mary miscarried of stillborn daughter, only 4 months later. In 1816 May gave birth to Shelley’s son William, and then accompanied him and a friend to Lake Geneva with the notorious Lord Byron.
Shelley’s skepticism is seen once again in the poem Mont Blanc, which was written after his trip to Switzerland. At the end of the fifth stanza it contains the famous lines:
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
It seems that these lines are stating that if the human mind cannot put any meaning upon such things as the earth, sea, and stars – then is there really any meaning at all?
Shelley died at sea in 1820, one month shy of his thirtieth birthday, and washed ashore in Italy. He was found with a copy of Keats’ poems. He was cremated by his friends, as was the law of Italy for bodies spit out by the ocean. His heart was cut from his body and brought back to England to buried, as his friends believed it too pure to be burned.
He continued to split opinion long after his death – with those such as Matthew Arnold vilifying his vanity, stating ‘beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain’, whereas those such as Edgar Allan Poe, Benjamin Disraeli, and Thomas Hardy all admired Shelley to various extents.
His influence grew after exponentially after his death, with his political and societal ideas inspiring everyone from Tolstoy to Martin Luther King. His poetry, to, continued to be greatly influential and has been read by millions across the globe, earning a place within the English poetry canon. It also appeared on one of the English Literature GCSE exams this year!
Read more of Shelley’s poetry here.
Which is your favourite poem by Shelley? Or does one of the other famous Romantics hold a place in your heart?
*I like to believe that David Hume, as one of the great skeptical philosophers, is an ancestor of mine. Our families are both from the same area of Scotland, so there’s probably a good chance he’s in there somewhere!