The Principal Poetic Works of Shelley
A. Early Poems
(i) Queen Mab (1813) – This poem attacks Christianity for professing love while inciting its followers to religious intolerance. The corrupting influences of kings and priests are also exposed in the poem, and the Golden Age is prophesied. It is a crude poem attacking dogmatic religion, government, industrial tyranny and war. It was written under the influence of William Godwin, the revolutionary philosopher.
(ii) Hymn to Intellectual Beauty (1816) – It contains his devotion and worship of the principle of Beauty who is looked upon as a deity.
(iii) Alastor (1816) – It is an allegory condemning self-centred idealism and pleading on behalf of human love. It is a vaguely autobiographical account of a young poet’s unsuccessful attempt to recapture his envisioned ideal.
(iv) The Revolt of Islam (1817-18) – It is a symbolic epic in Spenserian stanzas containing violent attacks on Theism and Christianity, and proclaiming a bloodless revolution and the regeneration of man by lover. It is valuable for the story of man’s revolt against tyranny and for the glimpse of a Golden Age. The Revolt of Islam was Shelley’s first long poem of mature splendour and power.
B. Poetic dramas :
(i) Prometheus Unbound (1818-20) – It is a poetic drama containing a series of lyrics and choruses. It is based on an ancient Greek myth. Prometheus is an ideal and allegorical figure of progressive man’s desire for intellectual light and spiritual liberty. This drama is Shelley’s most characteristic work, in both thought and style. Its subject was suggested by Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, in which Prometheus, heroic friend and lover of mankind, was released from a rock where the tyrant Zeus had chained him. In Shelley’s treatment, Prometheus represents, not a super-human helper of mankind, but mankind itself, heroic, just, gentle, sacredly thirsting after liberty and spiritual gladness, but chained and tortured by Jupiter.
(ii) The Cenci (1819) – It is a realistic tragedy based upon a morbid and sordid Italian story which gives a detailed account of the horrors which ended in the extinction of one of the noblest and richest families of Rome in the year 1599. In brief, the story was the murder of an incestuous and inhuman father by the daughter, Beatrice, with the law’s savage revenges. When Shelley saw ther artist Guido’s portrait of Beatrice at the Colonna Palace, he was profoundly touched, and thought her to be one of the loveliest specimens of the workmanship of Nature. The Cenci Palace, vast and gloomy spoke also to his imagination. Shelley’s drama is a poetical and moral commemoration of what may be called the martyrdom of Beatrice. This drama is something of an elegy in honour of the heroism of Beatrice Cenci.
(iii) Hellas (1821-22) – It is a lyrical drama inspired by the Greek declaration of independence from the Turkish yoke. In its way Hellas is magnificent, though it was written from the fragmentary information Shelley got from continental newspapers. For some the emotional final chorus is the one thing that matters in this drama : “The world’s great age beings anew ….”, It is the last of Shelley’s major political poems. Its aims are three. The first is fundamentally political : to celebrate the Greek war against the Turks “as a portion of the cause of civilization and moral improvement”. The second is ethical : to hold up as example for the modern world the wonderful achievement of Athens in the fifth century B.C., and to describe a new Athens symbolizing liberty and dedicated to the spread of brotherly love. The third is metaphysical : to assert that thought is the sole reality and that all else in the world is a shadow and a dream.
C. Short Humanitarian Poems :
(i) The Masque of Anarchy (1819) – It is one of the world’s great revolutionary songs, which Shelley was moved to write by the news of the “massacre of Peterloo”. With the drum-beat of its solemn march, it is a call to the workers of England to “rise like lion after slumber in un-vanquishable number”, and its true Shelleyan quality lies in the fact that though it calls for rebellion it does not call for blood. The same belief, the same ultimate trust that the only way to conquer evil is by good, runs through The Revolt of Islam.
(ii) Song to the Men of England (1819) – Based on the notion that Liberty, England’s erstwhile queen, had been done to death in the course of recent months, and could be revived only through the concerted efforts of her bereaved subjects, this poem was written to be sung to the tune of England’s national anthem : “God Save the King”.
(iii) Ode to Liberty (1820) – It is among the best of Shelley’s political poems in the grand style. The voice of liberty, coming out of the depth of thought, charges with mighty the wings of his song, says Shelley, and he provides an idealized history, first of the rise of Athenian liberty out of chaos, and then of liberty’s long decline under the Roman empire and the oppressive forces of institutional Christianity. This poem was inspired by the Spanish Revolution.
(iv) Ode to Naples (1820) – This poem was written by Shelley to greet the proclamation of a constitutional government at Naples in 1820. The poem is a tribute to the Neapolitans as the latest enemies of the league of tyrants.
D. Occasional Poems :
(i) Julian and Maddalo – It is a conversation between Julian (Shelley) and Maddalo (Byron). The poem contains an important portrait of Byron’s puzzling personality. This poem gave to Shelley’s friends a taste of verse which was, for once, both earthly and human, those parts of it, that is, which do not concern the story of the madman. (The story of the madman is a dreadful one which reads like veiled and nightmare autobiography, of frightful projection of some inward canker of the mind). The tone of the verse in those parts is that of man talking amongst friends. The poem shows that Shelley could talk as well as sing.
(ii) Epipsychidion – It is an idealized history of Shelley’s life and feelings. It is addressed to Emilia Viviani, an Italian girl, whose wronged life produced a rapturous outburst in favour of free love. It is a strange poem. The movement of Shelley’s verse is habitually swift, but the couplets of Epipsychidion seem to flow with an almost breathless speed. The pulse of the poem beats at fever pitch, between waking and sleeping. After the veiled autobiography of the opening passages, in which he describes the failure of a search to find a living embodiment of that “Being whom my spirit oft met on its visioned wandering”, he declares that he has found it at last; and the rest of the poem, beautiful as only Shelley’s poetry can be, described as the island “beautiful as a wreck of Paradise” whither he wishes to take his beloved.
(iii) Adonais – It is an elegy on the death of John Keats, and one of the greates elegies in the English language. It is a most noble tribute not only to the dead poet but to poetry itself, and the life beyond life of which poets are assured : “He is a portion of the loveliness which once he made more lovely..” That life beyond life was becoming more and more the subject of Shelley’s brooding. Keats had spoken of death as “life’s high mead”, and had found it “rich to die”, when the nightingale was singing ; for him death had appeared as fulfilment, but for Shelley it appeared as an escape and a liberation, more and more desired. The concluding lines of Adonais, with their exultant sense of the melting away of the mortal body under the fire of Love which created and sustains the universe and is itself the only reality, are at once an inspiration and a prophecy.