By Dr Ratan Bhattacharjee
Denounced as a rebel or a demon during his lifetime, Percy Bysshe Shelley became an angel after death. Two centuries later, he remains more powerful than when he was alive.
It is not easy to analyze why Shelley is more popular than any other English Romantic poet in the world, except perhaps his friend Lord Byron. His works continue to evolve decades after his death by drowning in the Gulf of Spezia at the age of 30 in 1822. It was ironic for the poet who had imagined time as an ocean in these lines: “Unfathomable Sea ! whose waves are years, / Ocean of time, whose waters of deep woe / Are brackish from the salt of human tears!
Born three years after the French Revolution, he grew up naturally in the atmosphere of the insurrection. Since childhood, he was uncomfortable with ‘Bysshe’, a title he received from his grandfather. He was temperamentally unfit for the regimental discipline of Syon House Academy, which he joined in 1802.
Here Shelley was subjected to the usual bullying, as he next faced the most difficult obstacle of life at Oxford, from which he was kicked out with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg for writing the pamphlet” The Necessity of Atheism”. In his free spirit, there was no contradiction between an interest in science and an appetite for trashy gothic detective stories. By the end of his Eton career he had finished reading Plato, Pliny and Lucretius widely, Robert Southey enthusiastically, and Walter Scott less, and went on to read many Gothic novels.
Southey dated him and tried to steer him away from radical causes. Shelley became far more interested in meeting another of his cultural heroes – William Godwin, whose “political justice” had been Shelley’s book to live by. While at Keswick, Shelley devised a plan to put his radical political ideas into action. He had worked on a pamphlet simply titled “An Address to the Irish People”.
Shelley has become the most discussed second-generation revolutionary poet who considers him “the poet of the future”. He always lived in a world of ideas and visions that seemed to him much more reasonable, sensible and realistic. He never had a taste for the so-called or presumed tangible realities of the universe. Shelley’s main literary project at this time was “Queen Mab”, which reiterates many themes from Shelley’s political pamphlets, attacking the oppression of religious dogma and superstition as well as customs and institutions such as the monarchy. The perspective of the poem is utopian, viewing the pettiness and selfishness of the world from distant and lofty heights and suggesting the great potential of the uncorrupted human soul. The utopian and visionary outlook of the poem foreshadows the apocalyptic, millennial vision of Shelley’s later poetry. “Alastor”, with its use of symbols, visionary elements and mythical sources (the Narcissus-Echo myth in particular), marks a real step forward from Shelley’s earlier efforts in writing poetry.
Shelley borrowed ideas from Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man” to write “The Revolt of Islam: A Poem in Twelve Cantos”. He said: “Love is celebrated everywhere as the only law which should govern the moral world. During this period (1818-1819), Shelley wrote what many consider to be his masterpiece, ‘Prometheus Unbound’ subtitled ‘A Lyrical Drama’, in which he could not accept the idea that ‘Aeschylus had bound mankind’s champion for eternity, or even worse, Prometheus would have been reconciled to Jupiter in Aeschylus’ lost drama, the sequel to “Chained Prometheus.” As Shelley asserts in the preface, “I was opposed to so small a catastrophe as that of reconciling the champion with the oppressor of mankind”. In the same volume as ‘Prometheus Unbound’ were published some of Shelley’s best extended lyrics, including ‘Ode to the West Wind’, ‘The Cloud’, ‘To a Skylark’ and ‘Ode to Liberty’.
“Ode to the West Wind” uses natural imagery and symbolism to predict not only a change in the physical climate but also a political one. He was the pyrotechnic romantic who even left instructions for his ceremonial immolation in the classic way and his body after drowning was cremated and then buried. Fournier’s painting shows the funeral pyre surrounded by three of the deceased poet’s closest friends. From left to right are author and adventurer Trelawny and fellow Shelley poets Leigh Hunt and Byron. In Trelawny’s own account of the event, “Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron”, he describes the hot August day on which the funeral took place. Fournier chose to ignore this aspect of the description. Instead, he portrayed the weather as gray and cold to accentuate the dark and dramatic mood of the play. Byron’s desire was to preserve Shelley’s skull and the lone seabird flying above the beach. Overcome by the experience, Byron, as the flames took hold, undressed and swam out to sea, causing him to miss most of it. So even in his death he was an unconventional figure.
Today we see in him the beautiful angel of prophetic excellence but during his lifetime he was denounced as a demon. He was the infidel of poetry. His father disowns him and elite society imposes all sorts of prohibitions on him. But as a poet, he explained the causes of the regeneration of mankind. His lyrics in the poems deal with the liberation of mankind. In truth, he defended three main pillars of the French Revolution – equality, liberty and fraternity. He possessed a deep hatred for priests, kings and many other tyrants and oppressors. The great poet even resented the “tyrant God” born of custom and fear. The famous “Ode to the West Wind” shows his belief in the repair and restoration of humanity. His insurmountable zeal and revolutionary ideas were expressed in platonic and political idealism in every line of his poetry, a source of positive motivation for the present generation even after two centuries after his death.
(The author is a contributor to The Shillong Times)