Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is widely regarded as one of the greatest poets in the English language. And while he is one of the most studied and discussed poets, Shelley is paradoxically, one of the most misunderstood. It has become almost universal among academics to classify Shelley, along with Keats, as a “romantic”, largely because of the era in which he wrote, rather than the actual intention and guiding principle of his work. The romantic movement, characterized as it was by the subordination of objective Truth and Beauty to the immediacy of personal feeling, could not be further from Shelley’s impassioned striving to lift the souls of his fellow human beings to those immortal principles to which he was devoted. Considering his often inflammatory polemicizing against the established order of state and religion, there is also a distinctly political and deliberate motive for this mis-characterization.
Shelley was born into relative comfort and privilege, the son of a minor aristocrat. He enjoyed a generally happy childhood, being particularly fond of playing with his young sisters, but often, especially as he grew older, clashed with his rigid and conformist father. This stubborn independence of mind and unwillingness to submit to arbitrary authority carried over to his boarding school days, where he often earned the ire of the authorities for his rebelliousness and ultimately came to a climax with his outright expulsion from Oxford for writing a pamphlet, “On the Necessity Of Atheism”. Now much could, and has been said about the advisability of so blunt an assault on conventional mores, but it defined Shelley’s political identity, and approach to life from there on. For Shelley simply would not accept any idea that was not susceptible to Reason and whose benefit to humanity could not be demonstrated. Subservience to established authority was, in his mind, manifestly responsible for the social ills of his time and was building up a groundswell of resentment and hostility in the lower and working classes that he knew was leading to a revolutionary potential. But after a brief attempt at organizing this upsurge he saw as inevitable when he distributed political pamphlets and held meetings advocating political and social reforms in Ireland, he ultimately realized that it was through his poetic gift that he could best move people to do the good.
From his extensive reading of the greatest classical thinkers such as Plato, Dante, Milton and Shakespeare, Shelley imbibed a deep love of beauty and the creative force which animates the universe, the capacity for which he believed resided in all human beings. This profound Humanism and what the in classical Greek is called “agape”, is what informed and guided everything that Shelley produced in his poetry and prose writings. It is there, almost as an announcement to the world in his early “Hymn To Intellectual Beauty”, it is the explicit subject of his first long narrative poem, “The Revolt Of Islam” and reaches its greatest heights of poetic expression in his famous “Ode To The West Wind” and “Prometheus Unbound”, both written near the end of his life. His prose work, “A Defense Of Poetry” is along with Schiller’s writings, among the clearest statements on the the purpose and value of poetry. Shelley’s explicit attack on the notion that human thought is divided between what the Germans called “naturwissenschaft”, or the objective sciences, and “geisteswissenschaft”, or the arts and the domain of personal feeling, should have dismissed any idea that he is a romantic, for that very division is among the primary tenets of the romantic movement. Shelley demonstrates in this essay that all of the greatest achievements of mankind, no matter the field of endeavor, have been inspired by a higher spiritual capacity in the human soul that is beyond the mere practical and utilitarian. This quality of “imagination” is the vision to see the better future and the capacity to sympathize with others which are the very soul of all beneficial change in the human condition.
Shelley’s activism and flaunting of convention in both his politics and personal affairs ultimately led to his banishment from England, a story too involved to relate here, but suffice it to say that he was willing to sacrifice family, money and social standing for the sake of his convictions. He spent the last few years of his life in Italy, where he produced some of the most sublime of his writings. Shelley claimed that he had been shadowed by agents of the British government since his early days in Ireland, and there is reason to believe it. In any case, he died after his boat was lost in a storm off the Western coast of Italy under suspicious circumstances in 1822. Whether or not Shelley was in fact murdered, it remains the case that he was hounded out of his country, slandered and ostracized by the oligarchical establishment in his life, but became, after his death, immortal, as his works spread and succeeding generations were able to experience their beauty and profundity. Although his detractors and many of his admirers alike continue to mis-characterize him as a fiery, but unrealistic revolutionary or a misty-eyed dreamer, it is hoped that future generations, through our efforts, will be able to experience for themselves the true genius of Percy Bysshe Shelley.