Shelley's Poetry

P.B. Shelley, “Ode to Liberty” (1820)

Jean-Pierre Houël,  Prise de la Bastille  (1789)

Jean-Pierre Houël, Prise de la Bastille (1789)

“Come thou [Liberty], but lead out of the inmost cave
Of man's deep spirit, as the morning-star
Beckons the Sun from the Eoan wave,
Wisdom. I hear the pennons of her car
Self-moving, like cloud charioted by flame;
Comes she not, and come ye not,
Rulers of eternal thought,
To judge, with solemn truth, life's ill-apportioned lot?
Blind Love, and equal Justice, and the Fame
Of what has been, the Hope of what will be?
O Liberty! if such could be thy name
Wert thou disjoined from these, or they from thee:
If thine or theirs were treasures to be bought
By blood or tears, have not the wise and free
Wept tears, and blood like tears?” (Lines 256-270)

Written in 1820, Shelley’s poem celebrates Liberty, a personified force that, after centuries of slumber, seems to be on the verge of reawakening at long last. While 1819 was a terrible year for reformers across Europe, 1820 brought new optimism: revolutions in Spain, Portugal, and Italy prompts Shelley to imagine the spread of Liberty further, across the world and into countries still under the yoke of tyranny. For Shelley, however, Liberty is not only a matter of representative government, fair pay, and impartial legal systems; it is also a state of mind. Beginning with a cave metaphor that might make us think of Plato’s famous allegory, Shelley imagines Liberty, leading the human spirit out of the shadows and into the light of wisdom, love, and hope—the qualities linked to human perseverance in the quest toward happiness.

But is the spread of freedom inevitable, according to Shelley’s poem? Think of how often Shelley gives us his picture of Liberty—what it is, when it appears—through questions: “Comes she not…?” While anticipated by Shelley, Liberty’s triumph is far from certain. After all, in the view of history presented in the poem, Liberty appears at several epochs—in classical Greece, the Roman Republic, and Saxon England—only to disappear once more. Written at a moment of tremendous upheaval in European history, Shelley’s poem captures the optimism that he and his fellow reformers experienced, but he never shies away from the vulnerability of it all. As his poem explores the struggle for freedom throughout history, it seems to be telling us that if the triumph of Liberty is not simply inevitable, the ongoing struggle to achieve and defend it becomes all the more important.


P.B. Shelley, “Men of England,” (1819 or 1820)

Jean-Francois Millet,  The Gleaners  (1857)

Jean-Francois Millet, The Gleaners (1857)

“Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low? 
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear? 

Wherefore feed and clothe and save
From the cradle to the grave
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood? 

Wherefore, Bees of England, forge
Many a weapon, chain, and scourge, 
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil? 

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm, 
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm? 
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear? …

Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells— 
In hall ye deck another dwells. 
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye. 

With plough and spade and hoe and loom
Trace your grave and build your tomb
And weave your winding-sheet—till fair
England be your Sepulchre.”

In Europe’s revolutionary era, the contest over hearts and minds was fought across many cultural arenas. We get a sense of this in “Men of England,” a poem written in the style of the popular songs that, in the England of Shelley’s day, would have been the stuff of riotous sing-alongs in pubs, fairs, and other centres of public life. In 1820, writing politically-charged content intended for a mass audience was extremely dangerous: reformers who wrote for common people often found themselves facing libel or even treason charges. On the other hand, finding innovative ways to reach out to common, illiterate people was deemed crucial if England was to achieve grassroots change. 

Shelley commits himself to just this kind of project in “Men of England.” Shelley writes in easy-to-understand language and adopts a bouncy metrical structure (“tetrameter,” or lines of eight syllables) that makes memorization easy. The metaphors Shelley utilizes for describing the situation in England are simple but powerful: worker bees—the hard-working men of England—toil for the benefit of the “drones,” the non-labouring members of the hive. Capping it all off are a number of rhetorical questions that bring readers or listeners directly into the poem’s action: why “plough for the lords who lay ye low?”

Like the people of London described by William Blake, Shelley’s workers are adorned with “mind-forg’d manacles,” since they wear the very chains they themselves have “wrought.” While they remain complicit in their subjugation, understanding this fact is the first precondition for achieving lasting change. And it couldn’t come at a more crucial time: Shelley writes that by toiling the earth for other people’s profit, the labourers are in fact digging their own mass grave, one Shelley calls “England.”

P.B. Shelley, “A New National Anthem” (1819 or 1820)

Nanine Vallain,  Liberty  (1793)

Nanine Vallain, Liberty (1793)

"God prosper, speed, and save,
God raise from England’s grave
Her murdered Queen!
Pave with swift victory
The steps of Liberty,
Whom Britons own to be
Immortal Queen…

[Bewilder] her enemies
In their own dark disguise,--
God save our Queen!
All earthly things that dare
Her sacred name to bear,
Strip them, as kings are, bare;
God save the Queen!

Be her eternal throne
Built in our hearts alone--
God save the Queen!
Let the oppressor hold
Canopied seats of gold;
She sits enthroned of old
O’er our hearts, Queen!”

Written in 1819 or early 1820, Shelley’s alternative national anthem marks a continuation of the strategies Shelley adopts in works like “Men of England: A Song” and “The Mask of Anarchy”: to write poetry in a “vernacular” style, adopting popular genres like the song to reach the kinds of lower-class readers who might not ordinarily read poetry. Far less dense and challenging than much of his other poetry, Shelley’s anthem is written in a shorter, bouncy metre and evokes the same patriotic emotions that most anthems stoke. But make no mistake: Shelley’s poem is no ordinary celebration of King and country!

The “monarch” celebrated here is not King George III, but “Liberty,” a personified presence that Shelley calls the only true ruler of Britain. Evoking the regicides recently experienced in England and France, Shelley claims that this “Queen” has lately been murdered at the hands of traitorous politicians attempting to curb the reform movement in Britain. But Liberty also lives in the hearts of freedom-loving Britons, which means that she cannot be stopped by shows of force. Thus, while Shelley reflects upon a recent turn for the worse in Britain’s state of political affairs, his poem also offers some consolation: if Liberty lives in the hearts and minds of British people, its reign is inevitable, at least in the long run. 

P.B. Shelley, “Sonnet: Political Greatness” (1820 or 1821)

Antonio Joli, View of ... Benevento (1759)

“Nor happiness, nor majesty, nor fame,
Nor peace, nor strength, nor skill in arms or arts,
Shepherd those herds whom tyranny makes tame;
Verse echoes not one beating of their hearts,
History is but the shadow of their shame,
Art veils her glass, or from the pageant starts
As to oblivion their blind millions fleet,
Staining that Heaven with obscene imagery
Of their own likeness. What are numbers knit
By force or custom? Man who man would be,
Must rule the empire of himself; in it
Must be supreme, establishing his throne
On vanquished will, quelling the anarchy
Of hopes and fears, being himself alone.”

Shelley apparently wrote “Political Greatness” with Benevento in mind, an Italian city that briefly established itself as a republic between July 1820 and the spring of 1821. Whether Shelley wrote his poem before or after the fall of the republican city is an interesting conundrum, given the poem’s questioning attitude about the possibilities of political revolution. Do the people of Benevento embody Shelley’s portrait of successful revolutionaries, who must exercise self-awareness and mastery of their own will before they are able to create political change? Or does Benevento illustrate the failure that awaits spontaneous and disorganized mass uprisings?

Whatever the answer to this question, this sonnet certainly captures Shelley at a moment of political uncertainty. While 1820 was a fairly good year for progressives, witnessing successful reform movements in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, Shelley dedicates his poem to asking hard questions about the possibilities for achieving political change. Shelley doesn’t renounce the hope of revolution or reform; rather, he suggests that an inner revolution—a self-disciplining, whereby we are able to master our desires and better know ourselves—must take place before we are able to achieve widespread social change. Shelley seems to have understood a crucial lesson imparted by reformers from Socrates to William Godwin to Martin Luther King Jr.: that in a world in which power is deeply ingrained not only in social institutions but in the collective psyche, the effort to change minds is perhaps more important than the effort to change laws. 

P.B. Shelley, "Ode to the West Wind" (1819)

J.M.W. Turner,  Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps  (1812)

J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812)

“O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being, 
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, 

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, 
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou, 
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low, 
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

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

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; 
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!”

The opening stanza of Shelley’s poem “Ode to the West Wind” moves like a gust, pushing the reader through a rich assortment of images. We begin with the Wind itself, ushering in the Fall—the time of impending death in the natural world, where leaves fall from trees, black, red, and yellow, like the plague-stricken. The Wind puts to rest the forest’s seeds as well, although we learn that this death is only temporary: like the trumpets of the apocalypse described in Revelations, the wind, now returned in the Spring, blasts its “clarion” to usher in a second life. This is no Christian vision, however. As is so common in Shelley’s poetry, “Ode to the West Wind” introduces Christian symbolism only to subvert it: the supreme power to give and take life, to “destroy” and “preserve,” belongs solely to Nature and not to God. 

What else is going on in Shelley’s effort to make sense of the cyclical movement of the seasons and the elusive power of the Wind? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this Shelley classic!

P.B. Shelley, “To the Lord Chancellor”

P.B. Shelley, “To the Lord Chancellor”

As American’s go to the polls today in a series of epochal mid-term elections, Shelley’s To the Lord Chancellor seems a more than appropriate choice for our Tuesday Verse selection. As Timothy Webb once noted, politics was perhaps the consuming passion of Shelley’s life. On the 6 November 1819, right around the time he might have been writing this poem, Shelley wrote to his friends the Gisbornes saying, “I have deserted the odorous gardens of literature to journey across the great sandy desert of Politics; not, you may imagine, without the hope of finding some enchanted paradise.” Shelley was what was known as a perfectibilist, someone who believed in the perfectibility of humans. He even developed a sophisticated political and social theory to compliment this belief. This does NOT mean Shelley was a utopian - he emphatically was not. But he did believe in the gradual evolution of the human species toward something like perfection.