English Literature » Notes » Shelley – A Revolutionary Poet

Shelley – A Revolutionary Poet

Shelley was a true-born child of the French Revolution. The spirits of that revolution found its expression in Shelley’s poetry. But as a critic observes:

The greater rigour of his nature begot in him a passion for reform and a habit for rebellion which are the inspiration of his longer poems.

Throughout his life he dreamt of a new society, a new world, absolutely free from tyranny and exploration. He was a dreamer of dreams and was always at war with the existing world of complete chaos and confusion. He led a ceaseless war against the existing political, social and economic institutions.

The Age of Romanticism is one of great turmoil in which Europe faced the greatest and frightful uprising – the French Revolution. The watchwords of the Revolution were Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. It stood for the natural rights of man and total abolition of class distinctions. Its impact on the civilized world was unimaginable. The English people, embarked on an age long struggle monarchy, found in the watchwords a reflection of their own ideas and ideals.

In spite of the failure of the French Revolution, the social and political upheaval in France played a great part in influencing English Romantic Movement. The Revolution was characterized by three phases which affected English romanticism. These are:

The Doctrinaire Phase – The Age of Rousseau
The Political Phase – The Age of Robespierre and Danton
The Military Phase – The Age of Napoleon

These phases had a deep impact on Shelley’s mind. Shelley was the only passionate singer of the Revolution. This was not because he looked beyond the instant disaster to a future reconstruction, but because his imagination was far less concrete than those of his great contemporaries. Ideas inspired him, not episodes. So he drank in the doctrines of Godwin, and ignored the tragic perplexities of the actual situations. Compton Rickett is of the view:

Widely divergent in temperamental and genius as Shelley and his mentor were, they had this in common – a passion for abstract speculation. Only Godwin expressed them in ‘Pedestrian’, Shelley gave to them music and colour.

Shelley’s revolutionary attitude was constructive in the long run. In his preface to “The Revolt of Islam”, he pointed out that the wanted to kindle in the bottom of his readers a virtuous enthusiasm for liberty and justice, that faith and hope in something good, which neither violence nor prejudice, can ever wholly extinguish among mankind. In another work “Prometheus Unbound” Shelley made his hero arch-rebel and compared him with Satan of “Paradise Lost”. In the concluding stanza of the song there is a return of belief that Earth shall share in the Emancipation of man:

Where morning dyes her golden tresses,
Shall soon partake our high emotions;
Kings shall turn pale!

In “Queen Mab”, he propagated the necessity of reform. As a poet, Shelley conceived to become the inspirer and judge of men. He had a passion for reforming the world which was the direct outcome of that attitude of mind which the French Revolution had inculcated in him.

A third idea contained in the original conception of the Revolution was ‘The Return of Nature’. It held that the essential happiness of man consisted in a simple life in accordance with Nature. Not that it was peculiar to the Revolution; but that it came as a logical result from the first idea. It is a well-known fact that when man groans under the heels of tyranny, corruption, selfish interest and social conventions; when he “lives like worms wriggling in a dish, away from the torment of intelligence and the uselessness of culture”; he cries, almost unwillingly:

Let me go back to the breast of Mother Earth where my own hands can win my own bread from woods and fields.

Shelley found in Skylark a symbol of the ideal poet who lives in isolation. He appeals to the bird:

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.

Ode to the West Wind”, was also written by the poet under the direct influence of the times. The moral, social and political regeneration seemed to Shelley possible in the atmosphere of Nature. The ‘West Wind’ seemed to be an expression of this background. Finding his life miserable, he implores the wind:

Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

Shelley’s revolutionary passion flows from his idealism. All his life he dreamed of an ideal world without evil, suffering and misery. It would be a world where reason would rule supreme, and Equality, Liberty and Fraternity wound be no empty words. “Ode to West Wind” expresses the poet’s intense suffering at the tyranny of life and his great hope in the bright future of humanity. The poem symbolizes three things; freedom, power and change. Clutton Brock, his great critic says:

For Shelley, the forces of nature have as much reality as human beings have for most of us, and he found the same kind of beauty that we find in the beauty of human beings in the great works of art.

Thus the poet finds the “West Wind” a fit symbol to raise and enliven his spirit out of the depths of desolation, dejection and weariness. Moreover the ‘Wind’ should scatter his thoughts among the universe:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of his verse,
Scatter, as form an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

It may be said that the Revolution to Shelley was a spiritual awakening, the beginning of a new life. He traced all evil in life to slavery. Free and natural development is only possible when he enjoy liberty. And liberty in his opinion was freedom from external restraints. Freedom was the first watchword of the French Revolution. Thus the Revolution kindled the imaginative life of Shelley as it did that of Wordsworth. But the fire in Wordsworth extinguished before long; whereas in Shelley it kept burning all through his brief career and permeated all through is poetic work. Cazamian said:

Shelley belongs to that rare species of mankind whom reason and feeling convert revolutionaries in the flush of youth an who remain so for the rest of their life.

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