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Essay/Term paper: Romantic opinions in the work of percy bysshe shelley

Essay, term paper, research paper:  English Papers

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To think of something romantically is to think of it naively, in a positive

light, away from the view of the majority. Percy Bysshe Shelley has many

romantic themes in his plays. Educated at Eton College, he went on to the

University of Oxford only to be expelled after one year after publishing an

inappropriate collection of poems. He then worked on writing full-time, and

moved to Italy shortly before his death in a boating accident off the shore

of Leghorn. He wrote many pieces, and his writing contains numerous themes.

Shelley experienced first-hand the French Revolution. This allowed him to

ponder many different situations, and determine deep philosophical views -

views that were so radically different they were considered naive at best,

downright wrong at worst. He contemplated socialism, having for a

father-in-law William Godwin, who was the prominent socialist in the United

Kingdom in Shelley's time. Shelley liked Napolean, and was suspicious of both

the Bourbon monarchy and the Directory. Most of all, Shelley felt that all

people had the right to work for themselves; he did not support the notion

that once one had been born into a class, one must stay in that class for the

rest of one's life. Shelley felt that all bodies of the universe were

governed by the same principle, completely contradicting the given theories,

those of Aristotle. Thus, Shelley gained a romantic and rather naive view of

the universe. In fact, Carlos Baker describes his poems as "The Fabric of a

Vision". (Baker 1) In Percy Bysshe Shelley's poems, the author uses those

naive, romantic opinions on the themes of romance, politics, and science.

Romance is well defined as a theme choice for Shelley. Shelley uses this

theme rather romantically; one could say that Shelley's theme in his amorous

poetry is unrestricted passion; love, Shelley feels, can overcome all

obstacles, distance, fear, even death. One example of this is in Shelley's

poem which is titled by the first line: "I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden":

"I fear thy kisses gentle maiden;/Thou needst not fear mine;/My spirit is too

deeply laiden/Ever to burden thine/I fear thy mien, thy tones, thy

motion;/Thou needst not fear mine;/Innocent is the heart's devotion/With

which I worship thine" In this poem Shelley is observing that he feels

inferior to his maiden; he "fears" her kisses because he is intimidated by

her perfection to the point where he feels as though he is stifling her, that

she is compromising her own value by falling in love with him; this is why

the maiden should not fear Shelley. He emphasizes his own faults in line 3,

by stating that his spirit is "too deeply laiden" to be good enough for his

maiden. He also mentions that everything about her is perfect, her body

(mien), her voice (tones), and her walk (motion). In the last line, Shelley

asserts that he feels so inconsequential that he wishes to place his maiden

on a pedestal and worship her, as opposed to treating her as an equal. In

this way does Shelley show his unbounded passion for his maiden. Another

example of this is in Julian and Maddalo, a long text wherein Maddalo is

traveling to meet his beloved Julian. William Hazlitt reviewed as "a

Conversation or Tale, full of that thoughtful and romantic humanity... which

distinguished Mr. Shelley's writings." (500) The lines he most seemingly

referred to were lines 13-19, which state "...I love all waste/And solitary

places; where we taste/The pleasure of believing what we see/Is boundless, as

we wish our souls to be./And such was this wide ocean, and this shore/More

than it's billows..." Shelley is referring to the love that partners have for

eachother; this love is boundless, with infinite possibilities for showing

this passion, both physical and honorable. True love turns away from faults

and inefficiencies, which bound all other virtues (talent, strength, et

cetera); Shelley wishes that his body had that kind of freedom, the freedom

to roam around without a care in the world, and thus the freedom to do

whatever he chooses, knowing that nothing will be affected by the mistakes he

makes. Lovers whose love is true have this ability, the ability to forgive

and forget for the numerous errors that either partner commits. This is

easily translatable to any era and any person, which is the meaning of

Hazlitt's remark. Yet another example of this can be seen in Arethusa, with

the lines 19-37:

And now from their fountains

In Enna's mountains,

Down one vale where the morning basks,

Like friends once parted

Grown single-hearted,

They ply their watery tasks.

At sunrise they leap

>From their cradles steep

In the cave of the shelving hill;

At noontide they flow

Through the woods below

And the meadows of asphodel;

And at night they sleep

In the rocking deep

Beneath the Ortygian shore;

Like spirits that lie

In the azure sky

When they love but live no more.

In this poem Shelley is playing on one of the most beloved fantasies of both

men and women, which is for the gorgeous, breathtakingly beautiful woman to

be swiftly carried away by a tall, handsome, strong gentleman to a remote

island where the two of them can make love in peace until the end of their

days. Arethusa is carried by Alpheus to a luscious island where they act

amorously until they die, their love for eachother lasting much longer than

their mortal lives. More evidence of Shelley being the "incurable

romanticist" comes in the poem The Dirge, which discusses a person who sees

his significant other in a coffin: "Ere the sun through the heaven once more

roll'd,/The rats in her heart/Will have made their nest/And the worms be

alive in her golden hair/While the spirit that guides the sun/Sits throned in

his flaming chair/She shall sleep." (Hazlitt 494) Again Mr. Hazlitt remarks

that this poem "...is a fragment of the manner in which this craving...this

desire to elevate and surprise,...leads us to overstep the modesty of nature

and the bounds of decorum." (494). In the poem, Shelley imagines that his

wife, Mary, in the coffin, dead; he is so deeply in love with her that he

cannot bear the thought of her death, and the thought of worms, rats, and

parasites decomposing her once-dazzling body; the golden hair may or may not

refer to Mary, because it is not certain that she had blonde hair, but rather

one find finds his significant other's hair, rather amorously, beautiful, of

extremely fine quality, like gold. The flaming chair refers to Purgatory, the

weigh station before a soul can pass to heaven, according to the doctrines of

Roman Catholic Christians. The thought of the inspiration for all of his

passion being decomposed by parasitic, filthy creatures scares Shelley, as it

would any other man whose woman lays in a coffin. Thus, Shelley is able to

emphasize unbridled, noble passion in his poems.

Another theme Shelley exhibits in his poems is politics and social reform.

Shelley spent many years in France during the French Revolution, at a time

when the French did not respect any leader except Napolean. Europe set up the

Congress of Vienna, whose job was to oust Napolean after he tried to take all

of Europe, banish him to a remote island, and reset the borders of Europe to

what they were before they banished him. It took them two tries to get it

right, because Napolean returned to France, where he was still revered, and

attempted to conquer Europe again. He was finally defeated by the same

general, and was banished correctly. In his The Mask of Anarchy, Shelley

asserts that "I met murder on the way- He had a mask like Castlereagh, Very

smooth he looked, yet grim; Seven bloodhounds followed him." (ll. 8-12) Lord

Castlereagh was the United Kingdom's representative to the Congress of Vienna

in 1819; Castlereagh had the Congress impose harsh sanctions on France, and

the seven that followed him were seven countries that felt the same way,

including Austria, Prussia, and Russia, the dominant military powers of the

time. Shelley feels that the sanctions that Castlereagh imposed were too

severe, and thus would lead to the demise of both France specifically and

Europe in general. Shelley proved to be a prophet, for much land was given to

the Kaiser Wilheim II of Prussia, who then, drunk with power, formed Germany,

a nation that then attempted - twice - to conquer all of Europe. Harold Bloom

notes that "...the Power speaks forth, through a poet's act of confrontation

with it that is the very act of writing his poem, and the Power, rightly

interpreted, can be used to repeal the large code of fraud, institutional and

historical Christianity, and the equally massive code of woe, the laws of the

nation-states of Europe in the age of Castlereagh and Metternich..." (87).

Shelley, in writing this poem, is attempting to reveal the corruption at the

Congress of Vienna. Shelley's aforementioned wife, Mary, comments on her

husband in a similar way. "...[Percy Shelley] had been from youth the victim

of the state of feeling inspired by the French Revolution; and believing in

the justice and excellence of his view, it cannot be wondered that a nature

as sensitive, as impetuous, and as generous as his, should put it's whole

force into the attempt to alleviate for others the evils of those systems

from which he had himself suffered." (ix). Mrs. Shelley is referring to

Percy's whole-hearted faith in Napolean; he felt abused by the monarchy and

the National Convention, which overthrew the monarchy in favor of a republic.

The commoners of France felt a void that only Naploean filled; Napolean gave

the commoners a sense of nationalism and patriotism. And when Europe banished

Napolean for a second time to a remote South Atlantic island. Shelley wrote

this sarcastic sonnet, Feelings of a Republican on the fall of Bonaparte, in

which a Napolean dissenter addresses the dead tyrant: "...For this I prayed,

would on thy sleep have crept/Treason and Slavery, Rapine, Fear, and

Lust,/And stifled thee, their minister. I know/Too Late, since thou and

France are in the dust,/That virtue owns a more eternal foe/Than Force or

Fraud, old Custom, legal Crime,/And bloody Faith the foulest birth of Time."

(ll. 8-14). The Republican states that while Napolean is asleep (banished

from France), many traits returned, such as devastation, treason, slavery,

and crime; and the rest of Europe pinned the blame onto Napolean, which was

unfair. Shelley supported Napolean, and wrote this poem to show the mistake

France was making in allowing the Congress to banish him. *Shelley also had a

strong opinion about the conditions of English laborers, which he addressed

in his poem, Song to the Men of England. "He looked on political freedom as

the direct agent to effect the happiness of mankind; and thus any new-sprung

hope of liberty inspired a joy and an exulation more intense and wild than he

could have felt for any personal advantage.", notes wife Mary. (ix) Shelley

felt great joy in exposing the inefficiences of certain governments and their

treatment of certain groups of people; he felt the British working class were

losing in the capitalist parliamentary society that was in place in the

United Kingdom at the time, and felt a great sense of pride in exposing this

to the general public, as seen in this quote, "Men of England, wherefore

plough/For the lords who lay ye so low?/Wherefore weave with toil and

care/The rich robes your tyrants wear/******/Wherefore, Bees of England,

forge/Many a weapon, chain, and scourge,/That these stingless drones may

spoil/The forced produce of your toil." (Baker 158) Shelley is attempting to

show the British commoners that they are working for people who think they

are better than the commoners, and who do not care about the working class.

He wants to stir anger against the "capitalist tyrants", perhaps under the

influence of Godwin. He was not successful, but he proved his point. Thus

Shelley has a romantic, naive view of politics and government.

Shelley also shows his romanticism in the field of science. At the time, the

view of the majority was Aristotelian, regardless of what others may prove.

Shelley, however, sided with the modernists, who were able to disprove

Aristotle but were not taken seriously, and were thought to be theologically

backward. An example of the science entering the poem is in Notes to Queen

Mab. Notes Desmond King-Hele: "...in 1813 [Shelley] wrote, 'I am determined

not to relax until I have attained a considerable proficiency in the physical

sciences' ...the first fruits of Shelley's astronomical studies appears in

Notes to Queen Mab..." (164-165). Shelley's first note is the one that best

exemplifies the point. "...'The sun's unclouded orb/Rolled through the black

concave'...Beyond our atmosphere the sun would appear a rayless orb of fire

in the midst of a black concave. The equal diffusion of it's light on earth

is owing to the refraction of the rays by the atmosphere, and their

reflection from other bodies." (Complete Works 135). Shelley wanted to

dispel the belief that the sun actually shot rays of light toward the earth,

when in fact the "rays" that we see is light from the sun being refracted by

the Earth and many other planetary objects in space. Shelley embraced this

view, and many other views of the modernists; and, as Desmond King-Hele

noted, "...without understanding the science undertone, Prometheus Unbound

loses half it's bite." (169). In fact, in that piece is the belief that

Shelley held, which was that he "...believed that fire, light, heat, caloric,

phlogiston, and electricity were, of not identical, merely modifications of

the same principle...the hypothesis certainly appealed to Shelley, who made

good use of it in Prometheus Unbound." (King-Hele 159). King-Hele uses this

passage as his evidence (177) :

The bubbles, which the enchantment of the sun

Sucks from the pale faint water-flowers that pave

The oozy bottom of clear lakes and pools,

Are the pavilions where such dwell and float...

And when these burst; and the thin, fiery air,

The which they breathed within those lucent domes,

Ascends to flow like meteors through the night,

They ride on them, and; and rein their headlong speed,

And bow their burning crests, and glide in fire

Under the waters of the earth again.

In the passage, Shelley shows a phenomena between meteors falling into the

Earth's atmosphere and bubbles from decaying vegetation as having the same

theoretical principle. Shelley sided with the modernists, with a view that

was at the time considered novel but highly unlikely. Another piece of

evidence for Shelley's science background comes from Ode to the West Wind, in

which Shelley discusses clouds. "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." (ll. 15-17). While his contemporaries

felt that rain was a sign from God, Shelley had a more literal view. "As

Shelley sees it, about two-thirds of sky is blue and about one-third, from

nearly overhead to as far as the eye can see west, is covered by a high filmy

layer of white, streaky mare's-tail or plume cirrus...low in the west are

jagged detached clouds, scud or fractostratus, grey and watery, approaching

fast in the rising wind... in the [stanza], the loose clouds shed like

earth's decaying leaves in to the airstream, are the fractostratus clouds,

harbingers of rain." (King-Hele 215-216). What Shelley describes in the poem

is the last third of the sky, releasing it's rain like dead leaves off a tree

in autumn; at the time, all things "falling from the sky" were thought to be

a sign of God; Gallileo said it best when asked where is God. "Certainly not

up [in the sky]." When asked then where was He, he replied, "How should I

know? I'm a mathematician, not a theologian." Shelley showed that modernists

like Gallileo were correct, that God could not ride a cloud around the Earth

as Aristotle believed. Shelley shows that rain is also a scientific function,

not a function of Him. Thus, Shelley undertones many poems with science.

In conclusion, Percy Bysshe Shelley had a lifetime of adventures from which

he was able to form naive and romantic opinions, which undertone his poems.

For example, he feels that love can conquer all obstacles, including

distance, like Julian and Maddalo and Arethusa, fear of inferiority, as in "I

fear thy kisses, gentle maiden", and even death, as in The Dirge. Shelley

also laces his political poems with his romanticist views. He shows his

support for a tyrant who tried to conquer the known world twice in Napoleon,

as in Feelings of a Republican on the Fall of Bonaparte; he attempts to stir

emotions towards socialism in Song to the Men of England; and he attempted to

smite the Congress of Vienna, which for a while brought order and stability

back to Europe, in The Mask of Anarchy. He also had what as considered naive

views on the sciences, which admittedly are now known to be true. He shows

that all bodies operate under the same principle in Prometheus Unbound; shows

how rain is made, indirectly by God, directly by clouds, not the other way as

one in the 18th or 19th century might argue, in Ode to the West Wind; and he

explained from where the sun's "rays" are coming, and again disproved the

notion that God directly poured them into the Earth, in his Notes to Queen

Mab. Thus, Shelley undertones his poetry with the naive views of life he held

during his lifetime.


Baker, Carlos. Shelley's Major Poetry. New York: Princeton Unversity Press,


Blank, G. Kim. Wordsworth's Influence on Shelley. New York: St. Martin's

Press, 1988.

Bloom, Harold. "The Unpastured Sea: An Introduction to Shelley." The Ringers

in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition. Chicago: The University of

Chicago Press, 1971.

Cambell, Pyre, and Weaver, eds. Poetry and Criticism of the Romantic

Movement. New York: F.S. Crofts and Comapny, 1932.

Hazlitt, William. "A Review of Shelley's Posthumous Poems." Nineteenth

Century Literary Criticism. Kansas City: Random House, January 1988.

Ingpen, Peck, eds. The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Volume I. New

York: Gordian Press, 1965.

King-Hele, Desmond. Shelley: His Thought and Work. Teaneck: Farleigh

Dickinson University Press, 1960.

Knopf, Alfred, ed. Shelley: Poems. Toronto: David Campbell Publishers Ltd.,


"Percy Bysshe Shelley." Adventures in English Literature. New York: Harcourt

Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

Shelley, Mary. "Mrs. Shelley's Preface to the Collected Poems, 1839." The

Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poems, Vol. 1 by Percy Bysshe

Shelley. Ingpen and Peck, eds. Toronto:

Gordian Press, 1965. 

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