Shelley is regarded as one of the great Romantic poets of English literature whose passionate search for social justice and personal love was gradually channeled from overt actions into poetry, that ranks with the sublimest in English literature.
Of none of the English poets can it be more truly written that his life and his works are at one, than of Percy Bysshe Shelley. If we write the story of the one, we find it to contain all that is essential of the other. More than any other great English poet, Shelley lived his poetry; if it was wild, passionate, defiant and utterly unpractical — so was he ; if it was too full of generous enthusiasms and exquisite dreams– so was he too. Theories, speculations, fancies, visions, fall headlong in melodious confusion through his poems; they formed equally the driving impulses of his everyday life. His “sweetest songs are those, that tell of saddest thought”, just because his spirit was ever haunted by the tragedies and the tyrannies, the hideousness and the hate, which disfigured the beautiful world of his dreams. He was a” beautiful and ineffectual angel” according to Matthew Arnold ‘s sentence “beating in the void his luminous wings in vain”; and his poetry is one long cry of freedom, a torrent of pleading song. Brave, sincere and tender; acutely sensitive to all that is lovely in in sight or in sound; a “blithe spirit” surmounting in ecstatic song the clouds of prejudice and evil:–himself and his verse are these, and are at one. Such characters as he draws in his poems are but ghosts of himself. We see him assuredly in the Laon of” The Revolt of Islam”; and in a few lines from a fragmentary poem of 1817 “Prince Athanase” in which Shelley unconsciously delineates himself, though it is but a vignette in this case.
Shelley and Byron became close acquaintances. Friends in the real sense they could never be, in spite of a certain mutual respect and some similarity of opinions. Both were romantic poets, with strong revolutionary aims, strangers in their own country and rebels against the world’s conventions; but there the resemblance ceases. In comparison with Shelley, Byron was selfish, cynical, haughty, and flippant ; and though at times impelled into nobler moods, Byron lacked the steady seriousness of purpose and passionate zeal in pursuit of noble ideals which never left Shelley. Shelley admired Byron’s great mental powers at a very generous evaluation but was repelled by his lack of earnestness and and by his merely defiant poses. On the other hand Byron found Shelley the purest and finest nature among living men; and it is certain that under Shelley’s presence Byron’s work took a higher tone and a more perfect form.
When Keats died Shelley wrote “Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats”- a beautiful tribute of 495 lines declaring his admiration and love for Keats who died in Rome–Adonais has some of the most exquisite lines in all poetry, such as:
“The one remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass
Stains the white radiance of Eternity
Until death tramples it to fragments – Die
If thou wouldst be with that with which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled!-Rome’s azure sky
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak”
Though his “To a Skylark” and Adonais are beautiful, most critics regard his famous sonnet Ozymandias as his greatest poem. According to one version Shelley with his friend and fellow-poet Horace Smith had one day gone to the British museum. They happened to see the head of the colossal statue of an ancient king of Egypt called Ozymandias, that had been moved from Egypt to the British museum (historians believe that Ozymandias was actually Ramesses II King of what was known as “Real Ancient Egypt”) It had been acquired for the British Museum by the Italian adventurer Giovanni Belzoni five years earlier. However the Statue’s fame had spread in Europe, long before its actual arrival, in London. Scholars believe that that Napoleon himself had previously tried in vain to acquire the statue for France. So much so, in writing Ozymandias, Shelley was inspired by the awe and mystique surrounding the statue, much before he actually saw the visage in the British Museum
This vain and boastful king Ramesses who had erected a huge statue of himself in the middle of a desert to proclaim his power, greatness, and fame, was completely forgotten after “Really Ancient Egypt” itself had been destroyed. Only the ruins of monuments and the broken statue remained, as stated above. The feet of the statue were still in the desert. The ‘shattered visage’ was ‘half-sunk’ nearby in the sand. The trunk had disappeared. The visage of the statue was subsequently taken to the British Museum!
Poets in those days used to write a poem on some subject and decide whose was the best. For example Shelley, Keats and Leigh Hunt challenged each other that each would write a better poem on the Nile than the other two.
Similarly Shelley and Smith who both belonged to the informal “Shelley literary circle” chose a passage from the writings of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus in Bibliotheca historica , which described a massive Egyptian statue and quoted its inscription:
“King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work.” The traveller from an antique land whom Shelley had met (as mentioned by him in Ozymandias) was none other than Diodorus Siculus!
Shelley’s electrifying Sonnet “Ozymandias” reads as follows:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Smith’s Ozymandias reads as follows:
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.” The City’s gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
It may be noticed that Shelley’s great sonnet Ozymandias as well as Smith’s poem deal with the same theme, the destruction and decay of the statue of a mighty king. However Shelley goes straight to the moral point of impermanence of things, the destruction of a mighty statue, which was has the metaphorical significance, of the collapse of an Empire and the insignificance of mortal triumphs and glories before devouring time. But Horace Smith looks to some distant future imagining an astonished and shaken hunter looking, at the ruins of an annihilated London. The title of Shelley’s sonnet was just one word, the name of the king Ozymandias. Though Horace had also published his poem originally under the same name he later changed it to read” On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription inserted below”- perhaps the longest and most uncouth title of a poem, in the English language !.
Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is a sonnet, consisting of fourteen lines. The metric structure he employed was” iambic pentameter”. But his sonnet has a different rhyme scheme, when compared with most other English-language sonnets, which have a common characteristic structure. Horace Smith’s poem is comparatively dull and prosaic. Today no one remembers Smith’s poem whereas Shelley’s powerful sonnet is remembered as a terrifying poem, in which he pronounces his final verdict on the instability of human glory with almost the same intensity as Gray in his Elegy, Shirley in his famous poem” Death the Leveller” on the same theme and Fitzgerald in the Rubaiyat. As usual, only Shakespeare has said it with much greater intensity–in Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Hamlet.
It is not easy to name in a few words even the salient elements of Shelley’s greatness. Shelley stands alone among English poets as he stood alone in life. If we seek to pigeon-hole him with the label of the romantic movement, we place him in the society of men who were utterly different from him. Wordsworth is calm meditative and essentially conservative; Coleridge and Keats are artists with a fine control of the artistic principle and the search for beauty; Byron is wanton and licentious in his freedom without stimulus and without solace. None of these epithets touched Shelley. Yet he is one with the other romantic poets in the determination to express his own individuality in the manner most suited to it. And it is precisely in the nature of this individuality that he stands solitary in literature. He was an incongruous harmony, which the world could not understand, of noble aspirations and high personal character with social principles that would have been fatal, if universally applied to the very virtues he most loved. The distinguishing note in him is ideality- the quality of raising every thought and action on to a higher plane, the imaginative faculty to take into his mind the widest reaches and loftiest visions. Love will not rest upon one concrete object–it soars and fades away into eternity. The territory of Liberty he is impatient to make his own and all men’s but he cannot explore and occupy it piece by piece. Nature is not only flowers and streams, mountains and seas ; but the movement of an eternal spirit and in religion wherein he has been most misunderstood, what he could not endure with patience was the imperfection and the incompleteness, the unworthy littleness of what passed for Christianity; the attitude of his mind as distinct from his intellectual beliefs was not merely reverent; the roots of all religion were firm in it – true humility, unaffected love of his fellow- men, an immense perception of the Infinite Love that dissolves all human perplexities and noble ethics. The effect of his poetry on the mind is to keep awake our enthusiasm and our purest ideal, and this is what he most desired to do.
Using poetry thus as a vehicle of emotional appeal, Shelley could not be the accomplished artist that Keats was. He composed his verses under the stress of strong excitement, with his imagination inspired by thoughts and ideals which were unmanageable in verse. Thus he is rarely wholly successful in long poems, which are like a crop of fruit gathered before it is wholly ripe. The structure of “The Revolt of Islam” even of ” Prometheus unbound” for example is amorphous running into vague mists without clear design or rather without a successful accomplishment of the design. Yet he would be a bold critic who would deny the artistic wholeness to the Cenci “or ” Adonais”; And we may even claim the very vagueness of” Prometheus” as an artistic merit. Whatever the value of his claim –and it is largely a matter of words since no one will now confess himself to be unmoved by its supreme loveliness– all critics will be united in their opinion that the lyrics show an art of the highest kind .They sing with final felicity some of the purest moods of man .Sad generally, they never strand us in the shoals of pessimism; pained at the” long wasting show” around him, they disclose a bright and beautiful countenance amid their tears; despondent as the spirits of all sensitive men must often be, they spring up again in a buoyant and inextinguishable hope.
Turn to “Palgrave’s Golden Treasury” perhaps the most famous anthology of English Poetry, and we see how high a place Shelley holds in lyrical poetry. In drama he is only great in a relative sense; in narrative and satire he may be dismissed entirely; but in lyric he is among the greatest of the world because of the purity at once of his melody and of its inspiration.
Apart from Ozymandias, this can also be observed in the following stanzas in “To a skylark”
“Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
(to my mind it has the metaphorical significance of a poet commencing a lyrical poem and rising to the heights of lyrical splendour)
again in the following eighth stanza
“Like a poet hidden
In the light of thought
Singing hymns unbidden
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not “
This stanza has two beautiful expressions,” hidden in the light” and singing hymns unbidden”
One is tempted to ask how anyone, leave alone a poet, be “hidden in the light”, unless it is the light of thought !Secondly Shelley makes an important point- no one asks a poet to sing a hymn( write a poem ! ). He writes because of his own spontaneous poetic urge. Similarly the skylark is singing unbidden.
And once again in the eighteenth stanza of the poem, Shelley makes some additional observations.
“We look before and after
And pine for what is not
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is wrought
Our sweetest songs are those
That tell of sweetest thought”
The last two lines are among the most quoted lines in Shelley’s poetry
I shall now quote from another beautiful poem” Ode to the west wind”;
“Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be though, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse
Scatter, as from unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened EarthThe trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”
The last line is also one the most quoted lines in English literature.
Whatever art Shelley brought to bear upon his poems–and he brought more than is often realised-he never allowed it to descend into artifice; he sang the truth as he saw it and felt it with a sincerity quite unsurpassed; and when the chaff had been winnowed from the grain in his works, there remains an abundance of rich music of the most exquisite tone. For if Shelley could not look at mankind with the serenity of a Shakespeare (nobody could) he gives us a most liberal compensation; out of much that was wild and immature came some of the most soaring poetry we have( and soar indeed he did as high as the Skylark to which he addressed one the best odes, in all literature, and from which I have quoted three stanzas above). He takes us indeed far from earth but never into the abyss–always towards the light.
Sudden and stark tragedy struck down the life of Shelley, in the prime of his youth, at the young age of 30. He got drowned when his own ship, named ironically” Don Juan” sank in the Gulf of Spezia near Italy. Keats also died in Italy in pain and agony at the tender age of 26 because his doctor wrongly diagnosed his tuberculosis as stress, and subjected him to bleeding, and starvation. Similarly Byron died due to an illness at the age of 36 in Greece where he had gone to lend his support for Greek Independence from the Ottoman Empire .The sum total of their ages was 92 years .But they wrote poetry of the highest passion and emotion which will be read as long as English Poetry is read.
In beauty, and lyrical grandeur the poems of Shelley, Keats and Byron are excelled only by the Plays and Sonnets of incomparable Shakespeare who of course dwells apart in solitary splendour like a star.