An important influence of later poets such as Robert Browning and W. B. Yeats and a contemporary of John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is widely considered a major poet of the English Romatic period, and has been described by one modern critic as “a lyric poet without rival.”
An atheist who only lived to the age of 29, the challenges overcome to attain literary prominence were not enough to prevent his success, although much of his acclaim came after his tragic death in a boating accident in the Gulf of La Spezia, near modern day Italy. Both Shelley’s first wife and his second wife’s sister committed suicide, arguably in part due to their complicated relationship with the poet. His second wife was Mary Godwin Shelley of Frankenstein fame.
Much of Percy Shelley’s poetry was overtly political, if not radical for the times, and published posthumously to avoid the persecution and prosecution that surely would have commenced if such material was published in his lifetime. In addition to the poets mentioned previously, a diverse group of luminaries including Mahatma Ghandi, Karl Marx, and George Bernard Shaw were said to be admirers of his work. Shelley’s literary reputation was more marginal than one would expect during and after his lifetime, even into the 20th century when critics such as T.S. Eliot and W. H. Auden fiercely disparaged his work. But as similar viewpoints to his increased in favor in the mid to late 1960s, Shelley’s critical reputation has unsurprisingly improved.
The following two poems, “Ozymandias” and “To a Skylark,” are among Shelley’s most recognized.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—”Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert….Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing besides remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
To a Skylark
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 day-light
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight,
Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear
Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there.
All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud,
As, when night is bare,
From one lonely cloud
The moon rains out her beams, and Heaven is overflow’d.
What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.
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 aëreal hue
Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view:
Like a rose embower’d
In its own green leaves,
By warm winds deflower’d,
Till the scent it gives
Makes faint with too much sweet those heavy-winged thieves:
Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.
Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
Or triumphal chant,
Match’d with thine would be all
But an empty vaunt,
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.
What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?
With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be:
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest: but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.
Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?
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.
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.