The basic rundown:
Shelley was this tortured poet
guy in the early 1800's. In his time, he was friends with all the popular famous poet
s, but none of the public actually liked his stuff. He died when he was 29. Later on, a new public dusted off his volumes and decided that they were genius. So it goes.
He had a quite the interesting love life
, and a flair for melodrama
. Following the style of Romanticism, he wrote flowery nature poems about the meaning of life and emotions and alla that. But underlying all this spring-time hullabaloo
, was a deep sense of pessimism, because Shelley had vaulting ambition
for what a poet should do, and he never could quite do it, in his own mind. He also happened to be a pretentious, rebellious Atheist
, married to the writer of Frankenstein
. Overall, Shelley was a manic son-of-a-bitch
, but his short poems are really quite touching and well crafted. For a detailed look at the mood swings of Mistah Percy, read the rest:
Fleeting Glimpses of Existence
Over four thousand years ago, a Sumerian priestess wrote the earliest poem that has been discovered to date. In this poem she employs images of nature to question her relationship with her Goddess. Even before this first poem, humans were entertaining abstract concepts of supreme beings, powerful non-human forces, and "souls" held within living creatures. Another ancient compulsion is the need to express oneself. Poetry developed out of this need, and as an art has seen many incarnations since that time, but the relationships between nature and divinity that poetry often expresses remain universal. In the mid-19th century Romanticism emerged and revived poetic connections with the world of nature. As one of the foremost Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley uses nature imagery to metaphorically portray his concept of a real world divinity that grows inadequate over time, as momentary exultation can no longer overcome his pessimistic despair.
Shelley wrote many poems chronicling his attempts to pin down the divine spirit he saw in every aspect of existence. He was an atheist, but he had an unshakeable faith in beauty and in a sort of divinity that he could see around him. He never used the word "God" in a poem. Instead, he held tightly to a belief in the existence of a force found in everything growing, living, dying, thinking and feeling (8).
In 1816, fairly early in his poetic career, he wrote "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty." This poem is Shelley's paramount prayer to the sublime. Yet from the beginning of this poem, Shelley's mixed feelings about his deity are apparent. He calls it an "awful shadow" (9), which brings to mind something dark and nasty, and then describes the deity in terms of "summer winds that creep from flower to flower" (9), which paints a more pleasant, desirable picture. In "Hymn," Shelley is building his personal beliefs from what he sees around him in the physical world. He throws himself whole-heartedly into worship of the faith, but he never forgets "the extent to which his deity is capricious, arbitrary, and a human projection" (7). This conflict causes much pain and confusion. It is his ultimate goal, based on his relationship with human emotion and nature, to portray all of existence using the intellectual beauty he felt poetry contained (5). His inability to sufficiently pin down this force puts him into emotional turmoil. He can see it everywhere, but it is never permanent or lasting, and he can never put it into words.
Nevertheless, Shelley perseveres in his poetry. He realizes that there is an immense space between words and feelings, so instead chooses to use words to paint images of nature, and in turn uses images to represent the feelings (7). The places this force came to life for Shelley are inside the soul, and in nature. Afraid of the ugliness in the world around him, he finds his "power" in nature and in his own heart, and he clings to this faith he is inexplicably aware of.
Although logic argues against it, he decides to keep his faith and depict the spirit as simply inconsistent. This choice is a reflection both on the unpredictable quality of nature and the frailty of humanity (3). To capture his deity on the page, he looks to the shadows of the deity that he sees in nature, for however brief they may be, those shadows are more concrete embodiments of his concepts than any emotion ever felt.
Nature, for Shelley, is the ultimate unifier. With nature, he can express his very personal beliefs to others in terms that they can understand. In 1820, he wrote "The Question," a poem that is almost entirely an extended description of spring. By the time the poem was written, Shelley's tone had begun to change. In "Hymn," he "… opens with flat statements about the nature of reality … defining an unseen power that makes beautiful the world of things" (3). The very title of "The Question" is setting up for a different approach. In this poem his faith is starting to waver – he is questioning his spirit and the ideas he has about it. Shelley saw in nature a perfect reflection of the human mind (2).
In "The Question," he is stressing the brevity of happiness through his description of a fleeting winter dream about a beautiful spring day. The constant changes in nature torment him. The end of this poem is a rude awakening akin to the end of a dream. The last stanza of "The Question" reads:
-- and then, elate and gay,
I hastened to the spot whence I had come,
That I might there present it!--Oh! to whom? (9)
His described joy is only momentary, and when the moment ends, his happiness is shattered. Images of nature suit his purpose and his mood
perfectly; "… the very solitude of the poet sharpens his sensibility to the harmonies of the natural scene, as well as to its analogy with human life" (3). The images and themes in "The Question" are analogous
to those found in many of his short poems. He uses these nature images to explore operations of the human mind, and to bring to life his beliefs (6). Shelley's nature is a front for more intangible concept
s. It is the simplest, most tangible thing to use to make his abstraction
s clear, and so he uses it to the fullest.
To say that Shelley "uses" nature imagery is correct on a number of levels. To the reader, all of Shelley's nature imagery merges into one, becoming timeless and unlimited. It appears that this is an innocent relationship he is a part of, both involved and looking on all at once (3). However, it is important to note that Shelley was somewhat of a second-generation Romantic poet. After Romanticism emerged as a genre, exploration of nature and self became quite stylish.
Prior to Blake and Wordsworth, an individual's own experience wasn't lofty enough to discuss in British poetry. Shelley was perhaps lacking a true, personal connection with nature. Instead, he was writing in a tradition learned from other poets, using their forms and images to make his own statements, and imitating the others to find his own voice (1).
," Shelley writes that he loves "Everything almost/Which is Nature's" (9). However, he loves nature not for what it is, but for what it represents. In nature Shelley can see his deity manifest
ing itself, and what he really loves is the deity. This does not make Shelley's relationship with nature less pure
or true, but merely points out the extent to which his use of nature was solely in the hopes of creating a message that transcend
ed and passed into the sublime.
The fact that Shelley did choose nature as the medium with which he brings his spirit to life is not without reason. In his mind, the real world is where everyone else lives and it is full of responsibility and sorrow. In the real world the human race is blind and struggling. But in the world he creates in his poems, there is a triumph of nature, art, love, and deep thought. The world of the poems is the poet's happy secret (3). He sees his spirit and its effects all around him.
In "Hymn," he makes a number of attempts to define this spiritual force and his relationship with it. This spirit "Gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream," and is the only thing that can truly do this for Shelley. He compares its "light" to "mists o'er mountains driven," "music by the night-wind sent," and "moonlight on a midnight stream" (9). He sees his spirit in impermanent things, these basic parts of nature, and those images where it resides. To Shelley, imagination, combined with intellectual thought and beauty, create a power which "… transforms what is merely potential both within man and
Nature into a realized form" (10). The beauty of nature is a reflection of the beauty in the human mind, and interwoven with both is Shelly's deity.
If "Hymn" is reverently wondering at the spirit's capriciousness, and "The Question" is registering disappointment at the end of a dream, "Song" written in 1821, is beginning to show feelings of despair. The overwhelming hope and desire to change the world found in his early lyrics was gone from later ones (3).
Although in "Song" he still refers to his force as "Spirit of Delight" (9), his tone is of disillusionment. His inability to capture or define the spirit is frustrating. He addresses the spirit, asking, "Wherefore hast thou left me now?", and "How shall ever one like me/Win thee back again?" (9).
Many of Shelley's lyric poems seem the products of self-pity looking for solace or validation, and are inspired by his everyday life (4). Shelley is hurt that, in his mind, the spirit has abandoned him. In "Song," he calls it "Spirit false," and hopes that "Pity then will cut away/Those cruel wings, and thou wilt stay" (9). He perseveres in praising it, because he still believes in its existence, whether or not the force will remain visible to him. At the end of the poem, he makes a desperate plea saying "But above all other things, / Spirit, I love thee—" (9), and then begs the spirit to return to his life.
Despite his growing despair, Shelley was able to feel and express immense joy. "In the 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' …emotion comes in spurts and rushes, unpredictable offshoots; it is communicated by moments of split-second, tell-tale verbal excitement" (7). Shelley describes in the poem when, as a boy, he first became aware of the force by saying, "Sudden, thy shadow fell on me/I shriek'd, and clasp'd my hands in ecstasy" (9).
Before the shadow of beauty fell upon him the boy Shelley was lost. He had searched for divinity in many different places and could not find it. Once he found it, he was able to see it all around him. He could write poetry about the spirit, and poetry, to him, is the ultimate merging of human creation and divinity. His lyrics are "… a means of cherishing the moment of happiness, of celebrating and perhaps immortalizing 'one moment's good' after long pain" (3). He accomplishes this best in "The Question." In this poem a vision of nature, specifically spring, elates him, because nature is beautiful and alive. His deity is the embodiment of this. For Shelley, as long as he can continue to immerse himself in these moments of joy, his spirit will continue to live on, and his life will not be meaningless.
However, in the end, the happy vision in "The Question" is no match for the death and despair of the winter, where his physical existence is trapped. Shelley paints a dark picture of mankind torn between the truth of the physical and the belief in the sublime. In order to rise above this, man must become one with both of these, thereby becoming one with the deity (10).
Even in the early poems such as "Hymn," this concept is alluded to – he questions the spirit as to "Such gloom, why man has such a scope/For love and hate, despondency and hope?" (9). Shelley feels these opposites within himself, and is troubled by them. "Hymn" portrays an inner conflict between the young man enraptured by moments of joyous connection with the spirit, and the adult, who is pleading with his deity to become a more constant, steadfast force.
Through all this, he never lets go of his absolute faith in "… the human mind as the final referent of value" (3). Shelley's poetry is the medium with which he can verify the existence of the spirit to himself and convince others to believe. Poets, in Shelley's mind, should use their words to express emotions taking physical form, of spirituality, and of realities outside our physical world (4). The only way for Shelley to find peace is to be able to capture his power on the page.
Part of Shelley's genius is in his description of nature as itself, while at the same time seamlessly relating its workings to the inner life of human kind (3). Despite this, he is never satisfied with his poetic portrayals of divinity. Shelley is struggling to find a permanent manifestation of his spirit, for as long as his spirit only shows itself to him in glimpses, his joy will only come in glimpses too.
Shelley's struggle seems consistently fruitless, and is a source of never-ending frustration. He is never able to pinpoint divinity despite his many brushes with it. Most of his lyrics follow the same progression - first the poet has a moment of absolute joy and beauty, but the intensity of the image fades, ugly reality emerges, and he is left in despair (3).
In 1821, after he wrote "Song," Shelley penned "Mutability," a short lyric completely resigned to hopelessness. This poem is lacking it's own moment of joy; it merely recalls joys past and mourns for them. In it, he conjures multiple images of happiness in nature and humanity, then concludes with certainty that none of the beautiful things are true or lasting. He opens by stating "The flower that smiles to-day/To-morrow dies;" (9).
Other images are in the same vein, and in each something brief and intense, such as life or beauty, gives way to something more permanent, such as death. The images in the poem "… suggest that the passage of beauty means nothing more than loss, vacancy" (3). If this is true, then all the joys in Shelley's life which burst upon him, then disappeared, have simply been sent by the spirit to torture him, and the only thing that is real or meaningful is his pain.
Shelley sees death as the greatest evil, the destroyer of thought, beauty, and emotion. He feels that mankind's views on death are a result of "… our conscious physical existence fearing an unknown physical nonexistence" (6). The spirit must be the antithesis of death and gives hope. Since both man and nature are closely related to the spirit. "Man is, consequently, both mortal and divine; his chief purpose on earth is to liberate himself from the evil nature of his mortality and assume that immortality which is the recovery of his own divinity" (10).
If Shelley's spirit would only stay in one place for long enough, he felt he might be able to unlock its secrets and ascend to enlightenment. "Hymn," "The Question," and "Song" each have lines where he directly addresses the spirit and beseeches it to remain with him forever. In "Mutability," he has given up. Not only is the beauty in nature transient, but also the beautiful qualities of human kind. Love is Shelley's penultimate incarnation of the deity, and yet he says, "Love, how it sells poor bliss/For proud despair!" (9). Even love, the most perfect part of humans, is cruel. "The poet's despair comes from his sense that the natural and the human, the human and the divine, are essentially in harmony … Shelley draws his conception of the deity from the workings of nature alone. These suggest to him that Power is not wise and providential but indifferent to human life, or at best capricious" (3). Nature is ultimately inadequate to prove the existence of divinity.
In the end, Shelley comes to regard Nature not as a thing of perfection disconnected from human struggle and ugliness, but as being equally as "… chaotic and destructive as human society" (2). After so many years of being teased by the spirit, of trying to catch it and failing, Shelley's ideals crumble at his feet. He tells his reader at the close of "Mutability" that all beauty is but a dream, advising: "Dream thou – and from thy sleep/Then wake to weep" (9).
Percy Bysshe Shelley hoped to capture nature's incarnations of divinity in poetry. Much like clutching at smoke, his efforts left no substance in his grasp. In his own mind, he failed, and his poems mirror this progression into despair. His final vision is almost suicidal; he is so devoid of hope that he has rejected even nature, beauty and love, and in doing so, rejected divinity.
1 Arrington, Jean. Telephone Interview. 15 November 2001.
2 Bleasdale, John. "To Laughter: Shelley's Sonnet and Solitude." Romanticism On the Net.
3 Chernaik, Judith. The Lyrics of Shelley. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve, 1972.
4 Davie, Donald. "Shelley's Urbanity." English Romantic Poets. (1960): 307-25.
5 Hazlitt, William. "Shelley." Detroit: Gale, 1988. 325-327
6 Keach, William. Shelley's Style. (1984): 79-117.
7 O'Neil, Michael. The Human Mind's Imaginings.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
8 Shaw, Bernard. "Shaming the Devil About Shelley." Pen Portraits and Reviews. (1932): 236-46.
9 Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London: Oxford, 1912.
10 Woodman, Ross Greig. The Apocalyptic Vision in the Poetry of Shelley. Canada: University of
Toronto Press, 1964.
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