Shelley: romantic poet, political revolutionary

In the current TLS, H. R. Woudhuysen quotes from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s anti-war poem, “Poetical Essay,” which recently turned up after an absence of nearly two centuries.

And Paul O’Brien argues in The Guardian that “the quintessential English romantic poet deserves a better place in history than Matthew Arnold’s description of him as ‘a beautiful but ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.'”

He was a poet who wrote of beauty, and is always associated with his works To the Skylark and The Cloud, but Shelley wanted his poetry to be “the trumpet of a prophecy” that would ring down the ages to give voice to the inhumanity we see all around us. He was a devoted and courageous advocate of freedom, a political stance that quickly blossomed into a fierce anti-militarism: his hatred of war was one of the forces that “hurt him into poetry”. From an early age he was writing poetry against the Napoleonic wars. In an early poem, Queen Mab, Shelley cannot contain his fury:

War is the statesman’s game, the priests delight,

The lawyer’s jest, the hired assassin’s trade.

During his lifetime, because of his revolutionary politics, he had the utmost difficulty in getting anything published – Queen Mab did not sell any copies at all. During all his life, this “greatest of English lyrical poets” made precisely £40 from his writing, and most of that was from a novel he wrote while still at school. Some of his reviews give a fair indication of what the literary and political establishment thought of him at the time: “Mr Shelley … would overthrow the constitution … would pull down our churches and burn our bibles … marriage he cannot endure.”

(Thanks to John for the Guardian link.)


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