This is for those who haven’t read any Shelley since they were at school (if then) – an attempt to show you a little of what you are missing!
Shelley is a great poet. His lyrics will live and be read and loved as long as the English language is spoken, yet all too often what should have been appreciation of his poetry has degenerated into criticism of his way of life. “With all his genius [said Southey, soon after Shelley’s death] … he was a base, bad man.” To comments like which, Byron, who knew him well, responded: “You were all brutally mistaken about Shelley, who was, without exception, the best and least selfish man I ever knew.”
But Shelley was difficult to classify. For instance, he was sent down from Oxford for “atheism”, yet his mysticism, underlaid by his platonic vision of the universe, makes him one of the greatest of all religious poets. In an early poem [he was hardly more than a boy himself at the time], he writes that
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
I was not heard – I saw them not –
When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
All vital things that wake to bring
News of birds and blossoming, –
Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shrieked and clasped my hands in ecstasy.
This is the mystic moment. Yet like all mystics, he suffered moments of depression, aggravated by the knowledge that though he was so idealistic, such a believer in the innate goodness of people, he was “one whom men love not”. Read these lines, from”Stanzas written in Dejection near Naples”:
Yet now despair itself is mild,
Even as the winds and waters are;
I could lie down like a tired child,
And weep away the life of care
Which I have borne and yet must bear,
Till death like sleep might steal on me,
And I might feel in the warm air
My cheek grow cold, and hear the sea
Breathe o’er my dying brain its last monotony.
Look at the opening lines of these sonnets:
Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life …
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king …
Or read this, from “Ode to the West Wind” (Shelley was a master of the terza rima):
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.
But if you read nothing else, read this, “Adonais”, Shelley’s lament on hearing of the death of John Keats. It is a long poem – 55 stanzas – and all I can do here is quote a few of them to give you a feel … MORE