Shelley's Musical Muse

Jessica Quillin’s magical book, Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism, was originally published in hardcover by Ashgate in 2012 and almost immediately thereafter became almost inaccessible. There is good news for the Shelley Nation, or at least those with an appetite and stomach for a deeper dive: her book was recently issued in paperback at a reasonable price.  You can order it here. All references in this review are to her hardback version.

Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism explores Shelley’s near lifelong fascination with music and the role it played in the creation of his poetry and his theory of the imagination. It thus fills a significant gap in the critical literature. So far as I am aware hers is the only book length treatment of the subject.  Jessica radically extends and amplifies the pioneering work of Ronald Tetrault who wrote briefly on the subject in the early 1980s. Quillin's book is thoroughly researched and tackles a difficult subject.  As an independent scholar anxious to bring Shelley to the attention of a larger audience, books such as this are an important tool because they can connect Shelley to people who come from very divergent walks of life.

Anyone who has read Shelley (or has heard it properly read, which sadly is almost never) has almost certainly been impressed with its musicality.  Burton Pollin’s view was that “No English poet…has paid more attention than has Shelley to the loveliness of music….” During the 1800s, Shelley’s poetry was set to music on hundreds occasions; it is a pity that this habit died out. Jessica however is quick to point out that it is not just musicality that invests Shelley’s poetry, it is a musical aesthetic. What I mean by this is that Shelley carefully selects the musical imagery which infuses many of his poems. She writes:

Shelley’s exposure to a diversity of musical experiences and ideas of music affected not only the way in which he perceived music, but came to shape both his skills as a poet and his general view of poetry and the poet’s role.” (Quillin, 7)

One musical form with which he was particularly enamored was opera. Shelley's taste for opera developed very early and was complimented by the affection both his friend Thomas Love Peacock and Mary had for it. Peacock introduced him to Don Giovanni in 1817, and after that, he was a regular attendee.  Mozart was his favourite and he saw many performances at La Scala as well as in Turin, Naples and Pisa. I feel that we can say with confidence that his love of opera came to dictate the actual form of "Prometheus Unbound" which Shelley referred to as a “Lyric Drama”.  Tetrault notes that even his choice of this term

inevitably associated [Prometheus Unbound] with the operatic stage. ‘Drame lyrique’ was the term applied in 1809 to the French production of Don Giovanni…

Jessica also argues that the “organization of discourse and the specific dramatic arrangement…of Prometheus Unbound have strong affinities with the Italian opera of his day.”  (Tetrault, 149)

Tetrault believed that we can better understand "Prometheus Unbound" if we see it unfolding according to the conventions of opera in which

not action, but the quality of an action, the intensity of the moment is elaborated musically. Music abstracts and internalizes the social realism of drama, allows the characters to express their motives and passions in song, and shifts the attention of the audience from narrative to essential emotion and thought. Shelley's drama occupies its own imaginative space, beyond the bounds of realism, according to the conventions of a vast psycho-drama that gives expression to desire and hope.” (Tetrault, 152)

In a brilliant appendix to her book, Quillin outlines a possible “Operatic Organization for Prometheus Unbound” part of which you can see below.

Jessica also points to Alastor in which Shelley uses two contrasting musical images, both of which are based on the Aeolian Harp.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Aeolian Harp derives its name from Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds, and is an instrument

on which sounds are produced by the movement of wind over its strings. It is made of a wooden sound box about 3 feet by 5 inches by 3 inches that is loosely strung with 10 or 12 gut strings. These strings are all of the same length but vary in thickness and hence in elasticity.
Massive version of an Aeolian Harp from the castle of Baden-Baden

Massive version of an Aeolian Harp from the castle of Baden-Baden

You can read more about the construction of the Aeolian harp and see lots of examples at Luthier Arthur Robb's excellent page here

It was well known in the ancient world, but only really regained popularity during the period of Shelley’s life. Coleridge, for example, wrote two poems about it: "The Eolian Harp" and "Dejection, an Ode" and Shelley mentions it several times: in “Ode to the West Wind”, Mutability”, “Defence of Poetry” and, of course, “Alastor”.

The type of instrument it is, is obviously very important, for it requires no human intervention in which to produce sound; it is a passive instrument enlivened by the wind. How Shelley elects to present the image is therefore telling.  In the first instance it is presented in its traditional sense: the poet is the harp itself, and the wind (nature) sweeps through him producing music (inspiration) which heightens his understanding of the world around him. But we later find it presented in an entirely different manner: the sound it produces in the second instance is “bewitching, transfiguring, otherworldly” (Quilan, 58).

Now, Quillin believes that Shelley employs these two contrasting images to express what she sees as tension between Shelley’s two philosophical poles at that time: a sort of Godwinian idealism and the skepticism he had imbibed from his readings of David Hume and Sir William Drummond.  Quillin is thus one of the few critics who I believe have attempted to bring a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of skepticism to the study of Shelley’s philosophy, poetry and politics.

Shelley’s recipe for revolution began in effect with the human spirit.  He believed that in order for a successful outward, political revolution to succeed, our imagination, the primary tool with which our minds organize and make sense of the external world, needed to be cultivated and reformed. PMS Dawson wrote that for Shelley, “the world must be transformed in imagination before it can be changed politically…this imaginative recreation of existence is both the subject and the intended effect of Prometheus Unbound.” (emphasis added) Jessica also notes the intensely political aspect of Shelley’s poetry: “For Shelley, the idea of the poetical is so strongly linked with humanistic notions of socio-political reform that on some level ever his minor lyrics have polemical function.” (Quillin, 144)

Shelley believe that true political reform could come only through the aesthetic education of humanity – a fact our policy makers would do well to take note of as they ravage liberal arts programmes around the world. He would have seen opera as an ideal form to achieve his goal.  Opera combines poetry, music and dance and, according to Tetrault, “the ideals it presents are not superhuman and inaccessible but attainable by human skill, discipline, and effort.”  Revolution of the imagination is, thus, eminently achievable. 

Opera was also often intensely political, playing a central role in the unification of Italy by keeping the dream alive during decades of foreign rule. “The Marriage of Figaro” (which Shelley saw at least twice in 1818 according to Mary) was suppressed by Louis the XIV because as he said, “it would be necessary to destroy the Bastille before the presentation of this play would not be a dangerous piece of inconsequence.” He was right.  As Tetrault points out, “Figaro’s mocking aria is the direct expression of the will to revolt.”

The opera, therefore, not only supplied musical inspiration for Shelley, but a revolutionary political platform on which to construct his own vision of the future.

Jessica Quillin’s book is not for the casual reader and will not be everyone’s cup of tea.  However, for those interested in meeting the real Percy Bysshe Shelley, understanding the role music played in his poetry, his philosophy and even his revolutionary politics is important. It is my great hope that Jessica, who is a visitor to this site, will encounter this review and perhaps someday offer the Shelley Nation a simplified approach to the music of Shelley’s world.


Ronald Tetrault, “Shelley at the Opera”, ELH, Vol 48, No. 1 (Spring, 1981), pp 144-171)