Shelley is primarily a poet of love, as Keats is of beauty. The story of his life is, in fact, a story of love. But it has to be remembered that Shelley as a love poet is a complex phenomenon. For him love, is not the name of one particular feeling or thing. It is tinged with many colours. It is sexual love, Platonic love, cosmic energy and love of humanity. Shelley devoted his brief life to the pursuit of love. Yearning for perfect Love, Beauty and Liberty is keynote of Shelley’s poetry. He considers love a regenerating power, which is closely bound up with his conception of human perfectibility.
Shelley’s attitude of love was greatly influence by the teachings of Plato. According to Plato, beauty has such as enormous power over men because they have previously beheld it in a heaven and since, sight is the keenest of bodily senses. Shelley looked upon love that is, by no means, a simple phenomenon. In his essay, ‘A Defense of Poetry’, he has defended this concept as:
This is the bond and connection and the sanction that connects not only man with man, but with everything, which exists in man.
Shelley’s concept of ideal love finds it best expression in “Epipsychidion”. No poet felt deeply the dynamic influence of love in moulding human destiny; none realized utterly the triviality of life devoid of love; yet Shelley’s women are merely lovely wraiths that greet us to the strains of delicious music.
See where she stands! A mortal shape induced
With love and life and light and deity,
From love as sexual passion, Shelley proceeds to look at love as Plato looked at it. Here his concept of love is mainly Platonic, though the view of Godwin on free love also had a profound influence on him. In “Phaedrus”, Plato observes that Love and Beauty are nothing concrete but abstract and ideal. Thus love is regarded as a kind of madness.
Plato further held that every object of Nature is governed by love and are forever trying to unite them with the spirit of divine love diffused through the universe. Shelley’s conception of Platonic idealism finds its vent in the following verses.
Nothing in world is single;
All things by a law divine;
In one spirit meet and mingle,
Why not I with thine?
Shelley devoted his whole life not to the pursuit of physical but to the ideal Love and Beauty which he yeaned for all his life. In this respect, he has beautifully described in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”:
Spirit of Beauty, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Love to Plato is also an aspiration towards the good and the beautiful. In “Prometheus Unbound”, Shelley comes very close to the thinking of Plato. Prometheus exercised the freedom of the pursuit of good. And Demogorgan’s statement that Love is free is the only most philosophic statement. Only Love is exempt. Only love is free. Thus, love in Prometheus represents the more general Platonic notion, the notion of all things good and beautiful:
How glorious art though Earth! And if thou be
I could fall down and worship that and thee.
In his later years Shelley seems to have been moving away from the way of Affirmation towards of Rejection, towards the Rejection of the Image of Woman. He never lost his basic faith, but he laid more stress that before on the transcendent of that which he sought. His desire is:
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion of something afar,
From the sphere of our sorrow.
Like Plato Shelley believes that Love is the source of the greatest benefits for both the lover and the beloved since they encouraged each other in the practice of virtue. Love implants the sense of honour and dishonour and therefore impels to all noble deeds.
This is how Shelley looked at love. Though his concept of love is severely criticized by so many critics who contend that though intellectually mature, Shelley remained perhaps in some ways emotionally adolescent. His whole approach to love is not only unhealthy but his ideals, his visions, are only whims conceived in his own mind. But we should not forget that Shelley has his won philosophy of love, which was, to him, something higher and nobler than a mere sexual feeling, for him it was a perfection of all that is good and noble in the world.