PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY (1792-1822)

LIFE: like Byron, Shelley was born into an aristocratic family. He was a rebel by nature and intolerant of any restriction. He was educated at Eton and Oxford but from a very early age, he showed great eccentricity of character and was nicknamed ‘Mad Shelley’. He frequented graveyards, studied alchemy and developed interest in the occult. As a child, he had the habit of narrating as real events things which had never happened, not because he intended to lie but because, as a friend of his said, ‘he was the creature of his irresistible imagination’. He was expelled from Oxford University for writing a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism. When only eighteen, he eloped with sixteen year old Harriet Westbrook. It was a strange thing because he had declared he believed in free love. He was against marriage, but he was also against any form of authoritarianism and married Harriet all the same because he wanted to protect her and to free her from her father’s tyranny. He had many affairs in his life  and all, at least initially, were intellectually inspired. He considered intellectual inspiration more important than the woman herself and used to treat women badly when they no longer offered him what he needed as a poet. Shelley wrote of Harriet: ‘she could not feel poetry and understand philosophy’, and left her though she was pregnant.

He believed in the political revolution and became a leader in the struggle for freedom. In 1811 he went to Ireland where he hoped to arouse the Irish against the English Government. In this period he also took up   vegetarianism. In 1812 he tried to produce in England the emancipation which had failed in Ireland. He wrote a Declaration of Rights and scattered copies in bottles in the sea and attached to balloons in the air. In the meanwhile he had fallen in love with Mary Godwin, Harriet’s step sister and the daughter of the famous anarchist leader,William Godwin, and went to live with her. In 1816 Harriet committed suicide. Shelly felt completely estranged by the English society and, after marrying Mary, he left for Europe, never to return to England again. He stayed in Italy from 1918 to 1822, when he died   drowned in a storm in the Gulf of La Spezia. His body was burned on the beach and his ashes were laid beside those of Keats in the protestant cemetery in Rome. His staying in Italy was   tragic because he lost two of his children.

Shelley was a member of the Godwin’s Radical Circle. The Godwinian’s rebelled against Institutions advocating love, justice, beauty, friendship and peace, which are also the constant themes that run through all Shelley’s works. He had a real political vision of social reforms and suggested the gradual reform of Parliament. Karl Marx said of him if he had lived he “ would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism“.

WORKS: Shelley’s most important works have been produced during his staying in Italy. They are: Prometheus Unbound, Ode to the West Wind, The Mask of Anarchy, Epipsychidion, Adonais and Hellas. Unlike Byron’s, Shelley’s works did not enjoy during his life the same popularity: they were very difficult to be understood both for his attempts on experimental style and for the  use of images and symbols often contrasting with the accepted association (for instance the serpent stands for Good not for evil).

The Prometheus Unbound* is a lyric drama. It deals with the triumph of Prometheus over Jupiter, that is of reason and liberty over Tyranny. It fuses Myth and politics in a central theme of liberation and freedom.

 * PROMETHEUS: Prometheus in the Greek mythology is one of the Titans. Prometheus and his brother Ephemetheus  had supported Zeus against Kronos in his struggle for The Throne of Eternity. When Zeus took the power, they received in return the task to create the human beings and the animals conferring them the necessary dowries to survive. Ephemetheus granted the gifts of the courage and the strength to the animals, together with feathers, furs and other protective coverings. When the moment came to create a creature superior to all the others, Ephemetheus discovered not to have anything to give him. He asked   his brother’s help and Prometheus replaced him and created man. Prometheus knew that Zeus had no compassion and interest in men and that he wanted them to live as primitives until they died. To show his disdain, Prometheus, who had never had true respect for Zeus, prepared a false sacrifice to trick him. He   killed an ox and wrapped the fat and the bones in a heap and the meat in another, but he had wrapped the fat and the bones in such a way that it looked to be the most sincere tribute of the two.   Invited to choose, Zeus preferred the fat and got very angry for that. Since then, only bones and fat   were sacrificed to the Gods, while the meat was eaten by the mortals. Zeus controlled his anger and did not punish him. He only warned Prometheus not to give men divine gifts because they would only bring misery to them.  Prometheus took pity on the primitive mortals and, despite Zeus’ warning, he gave the mortals all sorts of gifts. To make them superior   to the animals, he trained them to walk erect, gave them the numbers, the alphabet, oxen, carriages, ships, sails, healing drugs, precious metals, signs in the sky, all Art and so on.  He also reached the sun and stole fire giving it to the mortals. Culture, Art and literacy soon spread over the earth. When Zeus realized   that he had been deceived by Prometheus a second time,   furious with him, he had Hephaestus shackle him to the side of a crag in the Caucasus Mountains: every day Zeus’ eagle tormented him devouring his liver, that at night, being him immortal, was mended. Eventually the hero Heracles killed the eagle and freed him from the torture. Zeus anger did not stop there because he intended to punish the mortals, too. He had Hephaestus and Athena shape a very beautiful young girl, Pandora, and gave her to Hephemetheus, who accepted her notwithstanding Prometheus’ warning not to accept any gifts from Zeus. He married her. Pandora was given a vase by Zeus as a gift. When the gift was opened, evil and despair entered into the world and mistrust and disease spread over the earth. Only Hope remained in the vase because Pandora, frightened of what she had done, had closed the vase before Hope could go out.

The Mask of Anarchy is a visionary satire written in response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. It contains an appeal to the people for non-violence mass political protest. Hellas was written to support the Greek war of independence against the Turkish Empire. Queen Mab deals with a utopian vision of man’s return to goodness and happiness. It contains his philosophy of life and it is based on the Godwinian anarchical beliefs and on Plato’s philosophy. A Defence of poetry is a critical work in which Shelley asked for a role of the artist in society. He insisted on revolutionary commitment of the artist and stressed the moral nature of the imagination: ‘the greatest instrument of moral good is the imagination’.

FEATURES: Shelley imagined a world of ideal goodness, justice, love and beauty, a world of absolute and eternal forces, completely opposed to the everyday world of oppression and injustice. He hoped that Mankind could be redeemed by these ideals. They are the universal ideas through which the transcendental world can express itself. They all derive from the idea of Good which is the source of all things. He believed that Beauty was eternal and a source of power. Beauty is mostly found in nature even if in Epipsychidion he had told of his life long research of beauty in the form of women.

LOVE is the principle of all actions, the force which moves both the physical universe and the inner world of the spirit. Only through Love we can improve the world since Love is ‘the bond which connects not only man with man but with everything which exists’, and then with nature, too.

NATURE: Shelley gave great importance to the spiritual essence of Nature and turned to the world of nature for images to express his feelings. He considered the natural objects as symbols of a spiritual world with significance far beyond themselves.Nature is the ‘beautiful veil which hides the eternal truth of The One (or The Whole). It is the privileged refuge from the disappointment and injustice of the ordinary world and the interlocutor of man’s melancholy dreams and indomitable hopes.Shelley’s sensitivity for nature was very similar to that of Wordsworth, pantheistic and animistic.  He is an atheist who believes in a universal spiritual force that animates every thing and links man to nature. In the Ode to the West Wind man is linked to the decaying leaves; he, too, may decay and die. The natural elements, such as the clouds, the west wind, the skylark and the moon, are all personified and endowed with their individual existence.

Shelley was the most typical romantic of the English romantic poets: he rebelled against his family and the social conventions; he rejected traditional Christianity, which he considered an ally of a corrupt society, and was in favour of natural religion. In a letter to a friend he wrote; “I wish I were The Anti-Christ.”  He was persuaded that man could achieve happiness and defeat evil only through a moral regeneration. He also believed that in a near future men will live together in peace and love, without class distinctions and in a society where institutions will be abolished or repealed.

POETRY was ‘the highest expression of the imagination’. In A Defence of Poetry he wrote that “Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of Knowledge”.

THE POET is he who has greater degree of imagination by which he can give shape to artistic representation. Poets are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. They are prophets and can suggest reforms.Through his imagination the poet can enter into the world of platonic ideas an so into contact with the true reality In the Ode to the West Wind the poet’s task is to help Mankind along the way to freedom and regeneration.

SHELLEY/BYRON: Shelley’s work Julian and Maddalo helps to understand the two poets. It is a conversation between Julian, who stands for Shelley, and Maddalo, who stands for Byron. The conversation reveals the character of the two poets, the analogies they had and the differences between them. They were born into an aristocratic family, lived intensely their romanticism, had incestuous affair, Shelley with Harriet’s step-sister and Byron with his half-sister, escaped the scandal and ‘the social hatred’ going to live abroad, first in Switzerland and then in Italy. They both were rebels intolerant of any restriction and fought for the cause of independence, Byron in Italy and Greece and Shelley in Ireland and both shared the utopia of a society of equals without class distinctions and institutions.

Shelley is more concerned with nature than Byron because, unlike him, he does not consider nature as a background in which to set his stories and characters, but a part of a spiritual world, ‘The one’ or ‘The Whole’, in which the eternal truth lies and where the alienated man of the industrial towns could find a refuge.

SHELLEY/WORDSWORTH: Shelley’s sensitivity for nature was very similar to Wordsworth’s one. Shelley, too, gave great importance to the spiritual essence of nature and turned to it for images. Like Wordsworth, Shelley thought that nature was a comforter to man because it could sore man above worldly pains and sufferings. Unlike Wordsworth, Shelley was more politically and socially committed: while Wordsworth believed that the role of the poet was to feel the divine of nature, Shelley thought that the poet had to be a prophet who had to teach man how to reach freedom and regeneration.

Following Plato, Shelley,too,  believed that man’s soul pre-existed in a ‘pure source’. It is different from Wordsworth Mighty Power identified with God because Shelley does not think God may exist and saw religion as an instrument in the hands of priests for the enslavement of man. He believed, instead, in a Universal spiritual Force, The One, which man was a part of: man may change, decay, die, but his spirit will join the eternal spirit of the Universe which continually creates new life. 

SHELLEY/BLAKE: Like Blake, Shelley sees the double forces of the terrible and beautiful as complementary features of Nature and of the world. In the Ode to the West Wind, the Wind is seen as the symbol both of creation and of destruction, capable of sweeping away the old order to create the new one.

ODE TO THE WEST WIND

I

O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being*,     *essenza                                     Thou*, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead   *(arch) you                                         Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing*,    *fuggono da un mago

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic* red,      * febbrile                                           Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,                                                                                      Who chariotest* to their dark wintry bed      * trasporti (sul tuo cocchio)

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,                                                                        Each like a corpsewithin its grave,until                                                                                   Thine* azure sister of the Spring** shall blow   *(arch.) your    **(Zefiro)

Her clarion* o’er the dreaming earth, and fill     * tromba                                                (Driving sweet buds like flocks* to feed** in air )   * greggi **pascolare                             With living hues* and odours plain and hill:     *colori

Wild Spirit, which art* moving everywhere;      *(arch.) are                                           Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!

II

Thou on whose stream, ‘mid  the steep sky’s commotion* , *tumulto                              Loose* clouds like Earth’s decaying leaves are shed,        * libere                                       Shook from the tangled boughs* of Heaven and Ocean,  rami intrecciati                                   

Angels* of rain and lightning: there are spread  *messaggeri                                                    On the blue surface of thine airy surge*, *dei tuoi aerie flutti                                                 Like the bright hair uplifted* from the head   * sollevati

Of some fierce Maenad*, even from the dim verge** *Baccante   ** fosco margine              Of the horizon to the zenith’s height*,                *culmine del cielo                                          The locks* of the approaching storm. Thou dirge**  * ciocche** canto funebre                                                                                                                                             

Of the dying year, to which this closing night                                                                             Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre                                                                                      Vaulted  with* all thy congregated** might       * a cui fa da volta ** raccolta

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere                                                                                Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst*: O hear!              * irromperanno

III

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams                                                                       The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,                                                                                    Lulled  by the coil of his crystalline streams ,    *cullato dal gorgoglio    

 Beside a pumice* isle in Baiae’s bay**,           *di pomice **insenatura                                 And saw in sleep old palaces and towers                                                                                     Quivering* within the wave’s intenser day,                     * tremolanti

All overgrown* with azure moss** and flowers          *ricoperti  ** muschio                           So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou                                                                         For whose path   the Atlantic’s level powers*        *al cui passaggio le  potenti Superfici                                                                                                                               

Cleave themselves into chasms*, while far below    *si squarciano in abissi                         The sea-blooms and the oozy* woods which wear    * limacciosi                                             The sapless foliage* of the ocean, know                    *fogliame

Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear,                                                                             And tremble and despoil* themselves: O hear!             *si spogliano

IV

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear*;     * trasportare                                                            If I were a swift* cloud to fly with thee;          * veloce                                                                    A wave to pant* beneath thy power, and share        *ansimare

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 * *  superare la tua celeste velocità               Scarce seemed a vision*; I would ne’er have striven  *quasi non sembrava                                                                                                                     impossibile

As thus with thee* in prayer in my sore need**.    *you       ** terribile bisogno                   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*    *piegato                                                  One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

V

Make me thy lyre, even as* the forest is:             * proprio come                                           What if* my leaves are falling like its own!           *che importa se                                           The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,                                                                             Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,                                                                           My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!                                                                      

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe                                                                                  Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!*        *stimolare una nuova nascita                 And, by the incantation of this verse,                                                                  

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth*        *camino non spento                                Ashes and sparks*, my words among mankind!   * scintille                                                       Be through my lips to unawakened Earth                                                                

 The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,                                                                                                If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

(ODE: lyric poem meant to celebrate a person, a thing or an event)

OCCASION: The poem was planned, as Shelley himself said, in a wood that skirts the river Arno, near Florence, at sunset, on a rainy, cold and windy autumnal day.

STRUCTURE: It is made up of 5 stanzas of 14 lines each and it is a combination of an Elizabethan Sonnet and the Italian  terza rima. The 14 lines are divided into 4 tercets and end with a final couplet.

The rhyme scheme is ABA BCB CDC DED EE. The rhyme of the second line of each tercet gives the rhyme to the first line of the following one. the rhyme of the first line of the third stanza derives from the rhyme of the second line of the second stanza and so on. The rhyme of the final couplet derives from the second line of the fourth tercet and so it is different from the Elizabethan sonnet whose couplet had no derivation.The rhyme scheme and the use of run-on-lines suggest the moving forward of the wind.

The first three stanzas have got common elements: they start with the same word “Thou” followed a relative clause and an imperative and end in the same way “Oh hear” followed by an exclamation mark; they deal with the same theme: the effects of the west wind on a part of the landscape, respectively the forest, the sky and the sea. In the whole poem there is  a great use of exclamation marks which contribute to give to the poem a dramatic, intense and emotional tone.

FIGURES OF SPEECH: It contains apostrophes, personifications, similes and metaphors. The apostrophe is to the West Wind who is also personified and seen as a wild spirit who can destroy or preserve natural elements. The leaves, the seeds, the sea and the sea plants are all personified. For some of them the personification is carried out through metaphors and similes: the leaves are seen like ghosts and the seeds  like corpses within their graves waiting for spring. 

The poem contains  some personal references in stanza 4 and 5. They are   very important because they let us know the poet’s state of mind when he wrote the Ode:he felt desperate, he was in “a sore need …. I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed ….. heavy weight of ours have chained and bowed” him. He refers to the death of his first wife and of two sons. We must also add the fact that he lives in a foreign country.  

SYMBOLS AND IMAGES: In the vegetative cycle the autumnal leaves represent the end of the cycle of life, that is death while the seeds  represent the beginning of a new life, that is rebirth. Both autumn and spring are also associated with death and rebirth: the autumn prepares the imminent death of winter, while spring prepares the rebirth of summer.

One of the most beautiful image is the image of thetangled boughs in the comparison between clouds and leaves: as the dead leaves are pulled away from the branches of trees, so the clouds are shaken from the tangled boughs created by the vapours spread in the air.It describes the effect of the storm on the sea,when the clouds seem to touch the waves and vice versa.

THE WIND: seen as the preserver and the destroyer of life, the wind represents the poet’s hope to escape from the unhappiness of his present life, but also the bearer of a message for a new world. In the last stanza it becomes Shelley himself with his dreams and hopes. It is seen as destroyer and preserver because it sweeps away the dead leaves and the seeds, and carries them to their “wintry bed” where,” lying deep and cold”, they will wait for spring to give life to new flowers and plants. In short it sweeps away everything which is old, dead and corrupt and prepares nature for a new life.

THE MAIN THEME: it is the theme of birth originating from death. Shelley sees death and rebirth both related to the revolution which, he believed, would destroy the world of tyranny replacing it with that of freedom, and related to himself, a suffering human being who wants to escape a difficult human life to be reborn to a new experience. He links the regeneration of nature to his own regeneration and eventually to the regeneration of the whole mankind. The wind has the power of destroying both the dead leaves and the poet’s dead thoughts,”Drive my dead thoughts over the universe/like withered leaves“,  but also the power to guarantee the preservation of the seeds  and the scattering of the poet’s words “to quicken a new birth!” among men.

SHELLEY’S PURPOSE was to spread the message of the call for revolution. The call for revolution is also contained in a sonnet written in the same year, ENGLAND IN 1819 (the year of THE PETERLOO MASSACRE). In the sonnet  there are  allusions to Britain’s rulers and some forms of injustice. Shelley sees the spirit of revolution as a “glorious phantom” which, like the wind, can’t be controlled.The sonnet ends with the image of a ghost from the graves, “ a glorious phantom may burst, to illuminate our tempestuous day.” In the Ode the phantom takes the form of the West Wind. The subject is the same: a revolution to renew life in a dead and corrupt world  full of suffering and injustice. He was a follower of Godwin and wanted a new world no longer based on tyranny, subjection, hypocrisy and materialism. He was optimistic about it as the last lines of the Ode show: “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

The last stanza contains Shelley’s idea on the ROLE OF THE POET. He wants to be “the trumpet of a prophecy”, a reformer capable of regenerating life,   a prophet who must help mankind to get rid of tyrannical rulers and realise a utopia of freedom and love. He wants to be as free as the wind and identifies with it:” Be thou spirit fierce my spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one”.

NATURE: As said before, all the creatures of nature are personified in the poem and share with man life and feelings: The Mediterranean Sea sleeps “lulled by the coil”, the clouds are “Angels of rain and lightning, “the oozy woods …suddenly grow gray with fear and tremble” knowing the voice of the wind.

The ode contains a lot of romantic elements: intense emotion, importance of nature, Autumn, the Romantics’ favourite season, the poet as a prophet and the poem with a message. 

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About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

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