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Shelley Study Guide

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SHELLEY STUDY GUIDE

Shelley was often regarded as if he were some kind of monster, because of his immorality and impiety. But at the same time, people who knew him well thought of him as being an angel--a pure, unearthly, spiritual sort of person.

Shelley has received very mixed reviews. Aldous Huxley, for example, said that "Shelley was a cross between an angel and a white slug." Many readers and critics have thought of him as the skylark--the writer of such lines as "hail to thee blithe spirit." He is often regarded as synonymous with the notion of the spontaneous, lyrical poet.

For many people, this was used positively. For them, Shelley was the arch romantic poet in the sense of being the lyric poet who richly poured out his feelings. He embodied for many the apotheosis of the Romantic man of feeling.

But Matthew Arnold wrote the most famous description of Shelley, which was negative: "A beautiful and ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain." What Arnold is talking about is the lack of concreteness in Shelley's poetry, and the lack of self-discipline. He's also talking about Shelley's lack of common sense. Arnold, like T. S. Eliot, saw Shelley as the dream escapist--a flighty, ungrounded idealist, in the negative sense of the word.

Shelley's reputation was thus severely damaged during parts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a review that aligns with Arnold's, Hazlitt wrote that Shelley does not grapple with the world around him. He wrote: "Bubbles are to him the only realities. His voice may be beautiful, but we learn nothing from it." So Shelley is regarded as a poet without maturity and good, solid rational sense. He's been seen by his detractors as a bird totally out of touch with reality.

F. R. Leavis is a little kinder. He says that we do find in Shelley a Wordsworthian concept of poetry as feeling--particularly as spontaneous feeling--but that there's no discipline. Shelley's feeling is allegedly divorced from thought.

All this is very akin to Eliot's attack on all of the Romantic poet's, and what he calls "dissociation of sensibility." He suggests that critical intelligence isn't brought to bear in the work of these poets. Eliot claims, damningly, that the locus of Shelley's poetry is not on the object. Instead we get emotion in itself. Eliot especially hated the cult of personality in Romantic poetry. Shelley exemplifies this as well as Byron. Eliot was more like the Keatsian poet of negative capability. He eschewed the overly personal or confessional in poetry.

The self-image that Shelley presents in his poetry is often of someone weak, frail, bleeding, dying. He embodies "The Sensitive Plant." This self-image made many critics cringe. Shelley sometimes veers into self-pity as well. He writes, "I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed." So there was for a time this radically negative reaction to Shelley. The critics found him cloyingly emotional and weak.

But for admirers of Shelley, some of these "defects" are in actuality his strengths. Shelley's poetry is incredibly intense. He has unusual powers to turn that intensity into lyric music. He is one of the most musical of all the Romantic poets.

He's also like Blake in that he is very uncompromising in terms of the character of his imagination. So there's a strength there that many critics applaud.

What he presents us with is poetry that lives at the extreme. In that sense he's like Blake, although the quality of the poetry is different. Critic Harold Bloom captures this well when he characterizes Shelley is the poet of the "flames of love." This is poetry that captures the intensity at the outer edge.

There are various other reactions to Shelley. He has been praised as a foe of political oppression, praised as a prophet of far-off social events, praised as an optimistic and altruistic idealist, praised as a deliverer, a messianic poet with a message of brotherly love, as a noble rhetorician, as a reviver of Platonism in a materialistic age, as a Romantic individualist, and as a Newton among poets, because Shelley knew far more about science than any of the other Romantics.

On the other hand, he's been criticized as a falsetto screamer, a sentimental narcissus, a dream-ridden escapist, as an immoral, free-love cultist.

Shelley was consistently throughout his life a heretic and a non-conformist. His life was very consistent with his political ideals, and he thought of himself as being like Prometheus, a light bearer, in his own life. He thought of himself as someone who was going to bring a message of spiritual emancipation.

Shelley was expelled from Oxford after only six months for writing a treatise on atheism. He was a vegetarian. He believed that marriage was a repressive, tyrannical institution, so he was very much like Blake in that respect. He took part in the movement for Catholic emancipation in Ireland, and wrote a pamphlet on that cause. He also wrote poems addressed to the working men of England.

Later, George Bernard Shaw described Shelley as being a social and political hero, and credited him with being a key influence on the labor movement in England. Is this that same dreamy escapist people so vehemently criticize?

The point is that we have a paradox in the reception of Shelley and his work.

Shelley was a disciple of William Godwin (Mary Shelley's father), a radical social philosophy who wrote Political Justice. Godwin argued that people must emancipate themselves from habit and custom, particularly ideas that are prejudicial and won't stand the test of experience.

If we think about M. H. Abrams's thesis in Natural Supernaturalism, we see it exemplified in Shelley. Like Blake, Shelley is someone who foresees a political and social utopia. He is committed to that wholeheartedly. But then he comes to believe that it is not going to be actualized in social institutions--so he internalizes that revolutionary vision.

Shelley comes to believe that there has to be a kind of moral reformation of each individual. For him, the leaders among us--like the historical Jesus or the mythic Prometheus--must help everyone reform the human heart. Once they do that, once they make people reach out in sympathy and love and imagination, then the world will slowly, gradually reform. So Shelley doesn't abandon his radical political views. Rather,

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