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“Life, like a dome of many coloured glass / Stains the white radiance of eternity.”
Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Curran, 1819.
While a student at Oxford, Shelley published his first poetry. He also published a pamphlet titled “The Necessity of Atheism“ which resulted in his expulsion from Oxford University. Shelley’s refusal to recant his objectionable religious views, a condition for his re-admittance to Oxford, caused a rift with his family.
On his own with no income and no employment, Shelley married 16-year-old Harriet Westbrooke, who would commit suicide only five years later after Shelley abandoned her and their children. Shelley and Westbrooke lived for a short time in the Lake District where Shelley met and was influenced by Wordsworth. Shelley soon fell in love with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and moved to Switzerland with her and her step-sister Claire Clairmont (who would later have a child with Byron). Shelley invited his wife Harriet to live with the trio in the role of a sister, an invitation she declined. When he received the news that Harriet, abandoned and pregnant by another man, had drowned herself in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, Shelley married Mary Godwin. During this turbulent period of his life, Shelley was poor and in debt. However, he continued to write, encouraged by his meeting and developing friendships with Byron and John Keats. One of Shelly’s major works, Adonais, is an elegy to Keats.
Shelley’s financial situation eventually improved on receipt of an inheritance from his grandfather; his personal life, in contrast, worsened. He lost custody of his children with Harriet on the grounds of his immoral lifestyle and his atheism. He, Mary, and Claire Clairmont then moved to Italy where his two young children with Mary Shelley died. The couple had a third son who survived his father. While sailing off the coast of Italy, Shelley was caught in a sudden storm and drowned. He was not yet thirty years old. His body was cremated on the beach after washing up on the shore and his ashes buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. A story claims that Edward Trelawny, a friend of both Shelley and Byron present when the body was cremated, reached into the fire to preserve Shelley’s heart.
Shelley’s ashes are buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. His grave marker bears the inscription “Cor Cordium,” meaning “heart of hearts.” It’s said that Mary Shelley kept Shelley’s heart, pulled from the cremation flames by Trelawny, and that it eventually was buried with their only surviving child.
After Shelley’s death, his friend Edward Trelawny returned to England and lived to age 88. As Shelley’s work became more popular in the later 19th century, Trelawny was considered an expert on Shelley. When he died, he was buried next to Shelley in Rome.
Although Shelley’s poetry was not well received or widely read during his lifetime (his radical views, particularly his professed atheism, and his unconventional lifestyle were distasteful to many early 19th-century readers), it became an important influence on later 19th- and early 20th-century writers.
Although more abstract in its construction, Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” follows the typical Romantic pattern of an observation of nature leading to a meditation. While observing Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, Shelley considers the relation between the physical universe—the world of nature—and the individual mind. This relationship is Shelley’s expression of Romantic mysticism.
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters—with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume,
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.
Section 1: In the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, mysticism is the perception of a spiritual presence in nature. Shelley, who professed to be an atheist, pictures the “spiritual” presence not as a divine presence, but as an intellectual power. Note the first two lines of “Mont Blanc”: “The everlasting universe of things / Flows through the mind.…” It is the power of the mind—the intellect—that is the force evident in nature.
Thus thou, Ravine of Arve—dark, deep Ravine—
Thou many-colour’d, many-voiced vale,
Over whose pines, and crags, and caverns sail
Fast cloud-shadows and sunbeams: awful scene,
Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down
From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne,
Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame
Of lightning through the tempest;—thou dost lie,
Thy giant brood of pines around thee clinging,
Children of elder time, in whose devotion
The chainless winds still come and ever came
To drink their odours, and their mighty swinging
To hear—an old and solemn harmony;
Thine earthly rainbows stretch’d across the sweep
Of the aethereal waterfall, whose veil
Robes some unsculptur’d image; the strange sleep
Which when the voices of the desert fail
Wraps all in its own deep eternity;
Thy caverns echoing to the Arve’s commotion,
A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame;
Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion,
Thou art the path of that unresting sound—
Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around;
One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings
Now float above thy darkness, and now rest
Where that or thou art no unbidden guest,
In the still cave of the witch Poesy,
Seeking among the shadows that pass by
Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee,
Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast
From which they fled recalls them, thou art there!
Section 2: Shelley compares this intellectual force to the River Arve that flows down the mountain. In lines 15–16, the speaker says that, like the source of the Arve, the “Power”—the presence in nature—is “secret,” unknown to humans. We can’t see the source of the river, but that certainly doesn’t mean we doubt the river’s existence; likewise, we don’t know the source, but we should not doubt the existence of the intellectual power in nature. When he gazes on the ravine, he feels compelled to “muse” upon his own human mind which both passively receives the information the senses provides and communicates with the “clear universe of things around.”
Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live.—I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurl’d
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far around and inaccessibly
Its circles? For the very spirit fails,
Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep
That vanishes among the viewless gales!
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears—still, snowy, and serene;
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desert peopled by the storms alone,
Save when the eagle brings some hunter’s bone,
And the wolf tracks her there—how hideously
Its shapes are heap’d around! rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly, and scarr’d, and riven.—Is this the scene
Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young
Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea
Of fire envelop once this silent snow?
None can reply—all seems eternal now.
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
But for such faith, with Nature reconcil’d;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.
Section 3: Shelley claims that the “wilderness” [nature] can teach one either “doubt” or “faith.” Perception of the Power may result in faith (like that of Wordsworth and Coleridge) which comes from the peaceful acceptance of God’s presence in nature. An equally possible reaction is to develop “doubt” of any orthodox religious view that sees nature as God’s handiwork. The mountain, though, has a voice to “repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe.” Not all, however, can understand that voice. In an idea reminiscent of Wordsworth’s claim that a poet is a “man speaking to men” but a man of greater sensibility, Shelley points out that the “wise, and great, and good” can interpret the mountain’s voice.
The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams,
Ocean, and all the living things that dwell
Within the daedal* earth; lightning, and rain,
Earthquake, and fiery flood, and hurricane,
The torpor of the year when feeble dreams
Visit the hidden buds, or dreamless sleep
Holds every future leaf and flower; the bound
With which from that detested trance they leap;
The works and ways of man, their death and birth,
And that of him and all that his may be;
All things that move and breathe with toil and sound
Are born and die; revolve, subside, and swell.
Power dwells apart in its tranquillity,
Remote, serene, and inaccessible:
And this, the naked countenance of earth,
On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains
Teach the adverting mind. The glaciers creep
Like snakes that watch their prey, from their far fountains,
Slow rolling on; there, many a precipice
Frost and the Sun in scorn of mortal power
Have pil’d: dome, pyramid, and pinnacle,
A city of death, distinct with many a tower
And wall impregnable of beaming ice.
Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin
Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky
Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are strewing
Its destin’d path, or in the mangled soil
Branchless and shatter’d stand; the rocks, drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaim’d. The dwelling-place
Of insects, beasts, and birds, becomes its spoil;
Their food and their retreat for ever gone,
So much of life and joy is lost. The race
Of man flies far in dread; his work and dwelling
Vanish, like smoke before the tempest’s stream,
And their place is not known. Below, vast caves
Shine in the rushing torrents’ restless gleam,
Which from those secret chasms in tumult welling
Meet in the vale, and one majestic River,
The breath and blood of distant lands, for ever
Rolls its loud waters to the ocean-waves,
Breathes its swift vapours to the circling air.
Section 4: While some people (perhaps like Wordsworth and Coleridge) believe that the spiritual presence in nature interacts with humankind, Shelley suggests that the Power of nature is remote from human affairs. It exists but is inaccessible to us. “Power dwells apart in its tranquility, / Remote, serene, and inaccessible.” This “Power” may be destructive as well as beneficial.
Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there,
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much of life and death.
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,
In the lone glare of day, the snows descend
Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there,
Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,
Or the star-beams dart through them. Winds contend
Silently there, and heap the snow with breath
Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods
Over the snow. The secret Strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
Section 5: The poem concludes with the assertion that the Power is there, like Mont Blanc, remote and inaccessible.
The European skylark is noted for singing while hovering in the air, sometimes at great heights. Shelley writes, then, of a bird whose song he can hear although the bird itself is not visible.
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
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.
In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O’er which clouds are bright’ning,
Thou dost float and run,
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.
The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of heaven
In the broad daylight
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight,
The speaker hails the bird, referring to it as a spirit, not a bird, already intimating Romantic mysticism. In an example of anthropomorphismAttributing human characteristics to animals or inanimate objects., attributing human characteristics to animals or inanimate objects, the speaker depicts the bird having a heart so full of emotion that it spills forth in song, in “unpremeditated art,” a description that evokes Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.” As we cannot see stars in the daylight but know they’re there, the speaker cannot see the bird but is aware, through its song, of its presence. This explanation sets up a series of comparisons in response to the question “what is most like the bird?”
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:
Like a high-born maiden
In a palace tower,
Soothing her love-laden
Soul in secret hour
With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower:
Like a glow-worm golden
In a dell of dew,
Its aerial hue
Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view:
Like a rose embowered
In its own green leaves,
By warm winds deflowered,
Till the scent it gives
Makes faint with too much sweet these heavy-winged thieves:
In a series of four stanzas parallel in structure the speaker presents four comparisons to the skylark—two human, two from nature.
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.
In these stanzas, the speaker notes one reason that humans cannot produce the beauty that the skylark creates in its song. Yet tears are necessary in order to know joy.
Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!
Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now!
In the last two stanzas, the speaker acknowledges that, if the skylark could teach him “half the gladness” that it knows, he could write poetry that would make the world listen to him as he is listening to the skylark.
Following England’s involvement in the Napoleonic wars, from the time of the French Revolution to about 1815, England suffered an economic depression. The Industrial Revolution forced many people, like Wordsworth’s Michael the shepherd, out of their traditional livelihood and into the cities to look for work in factories. Wealthy landowners were able to buy abandoned farm and pasture land. One result was a population shift. Large tracts of land now largely de-populated still had the same representation in Parliament while cities that had grown exponentially in population had little representation. England was in dire need of what we now call re-districting. The few wealthy landowners, however, were quite content with their control of the government.
In addition to the discontent caused by lack of representation, food prices soared as a result of the Corn Laws, a series of laws that placed import tariffs on grains (at that time in England the term corn was used as a general term for wheat and other grains).
Lack of jobs, lack of food, and lack of Members of Parliament to represent their interests led the working class to protests and demonstrations. The Peterloo Massacre occurred when mounted troops, with sabers drawn, rode down protestors, including women and children.
Already a strong proponent of reform, Shelley wrote “The Masque of Anarchy” and “Song to the Men of England” to protest the violent government reaction against the protestors and to encourage the working class to revolt against intolerable conditions. Shelley contrasts the lives of the working class and the lives of the nobility.
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?
The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.
Sow seed,—but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth,—let no impostor heap;
Weave robes,—let not the idle wear;
Forge arms,—in your defence to bear.
Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells;
In halls 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.