English Literature Of The 19th Century:
First Or Pre-victorian Period--1800-1837
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
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Percy Bysshe Shelley
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Even more than the passionate, erratic Byron the mild, philanthropic Shelley was the poet of revolt against the laws and forms of his age, yet he had much less influence in this direction. So refined and ethereal was his spirit, that his voice was lost on the multitude. But his poetry, apart from his philosophy, has been more and more admired by the best judges as time has passed on, and the later poets have resorted to him for instruction in their art. His lyrical faculty is almost without parallel in English poetry. Far beyond the light drawing-room songs of Moore, Shelley's lyrics, "The Skylark," "Ode to the West Wind," are buoyant and free and carry the spirit above the solid earth of every-day fact into the pure ether. He was a master of language as well as of melody. Beautiful and inspiring as is his poetry at its best, his life was a sad tragedy, full of grievous errors and useless rebellion.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792, the eldest son of a wealthy baronet. He was educated at Eton and Oxford, but carried away by the infidelity of the French philosophers, he 'published a tract on "The Necessity of Atheism," and was therefore expelled from the University in 1811. The wild and fantastic poem, "Queen Mab," privately printed in 1813, expressed more boldly the same opinions. At the age of nineteen the impulsive Shelley, partly out of pity, married Harriet Westbrook, a girl of sixteen, daughter of an inn-keeper, and was denounced by his family, though his father granted him a moderate allowance. The youthful couple wandered on the Continent, but the marriage proved unhappy, and they were separated after the birth of two children. Be-fore his first wife died in 1816, Shelley found more con-genial companionship with Mary Godwin, who, as the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, had been trained in opposition to the ways of the world.
In 1818 he published "The Revolt of Islam," a poem which, under another title, had been prohibited by the authorities. It is a declamatory narrative, showing the triumph of his philanthropic theories over the tyranny and hypocrisy of established religious systems. The courts deprived Shelley of the custody of his children, and he went to Italy, where, during his few remaining years, he produced his best poetry. In "Prometheus Unbound" he attempted to solve the great problem of human free will, as suggested by the "Prometheus" of AEschylus. Shelley was a profound Greek scholar, and an ardent Platonist. His Prometheus is the personification of resistance to universal tyranny and priestcraft, which he always regarded as imposed on men by extraneous force, and not arising from internal causes. His strongest drama is "The Cenci," founded on one of the horrible stories of revolting crime in the Italian Middle Ages. In the elegy, "Adonais" (1821), he lamented in noble Spenserian verse the untimely death of the poet Keats. In his last poem, "Hellas," he ex-pressed his hope of a grander and better golden age than that of ancient Greece. His death was singular and melancholy. While he was returning in a small yacht from Leghorn to Spezia, the vessel was caught in a squall, and Shelley, with two companions, perished. The poet's body was afterward cast on the shore, and was buried. But two weeks later Byron and a few friends burned it on a funeral pyre in the ancient manner.
Shelley, as a man, was mild, benevolent, temperate, his person was extremely delicate and refined; his poetry was full of tender, spiritual harmony; his diction choice and transparent; his power of imagination inexhaustible, carrying the mind far beyond the original idea, and introducing a perpetual interchange between the type and the things typified. In contrast with the serene philosophy of his real temperament he was too apt in writing to exaggerate the horrible and repulsive, and to use a fierce declamatory tone, which marred his early work. Posterity has learned to reject these extravagant outbursts and to dwell upon his sweet, graceful and ethereal lyrics as the true expression of his genius.