Shelley is considered one of the greatest of English poets. His writing had both great sensitivity and power. Though his life was short, he made a tremendous impact on the thinking of his time. He was a great humanitarian, and wanted dignity and freedom for everyone.
His ideas ran directly counter to those of his time, when a few were held to be rightfully in authority and the many were supposed to do what they were told without question. Shelley would have none of this. His Song to the Men of England expresses this dramatically:
“Men of England, heirs of glory,
Heroes of unwritten story…
Rise like lions after slumber
In unconquerable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you.
Ye are many, they are few.”
Shelley’s first significant poem Queen Mab was written when he was eighteen. It was all about ‘integrity and loveliness’, about the evil of tyranny in any form, and ‘suicidal selfishness’. Amongst other things, it attacked established religion, and its content was so shocking that had to be published privately. Even then, legal proceedings were taken against the publisher.
People in power did not like Shelley’s ideas, which they found threatening. Shelley did not make it any easier for himself by challenging those in authority, as when about a year after entering University College, Oxford, he joined with a friend to write and circulate a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, based partly on the work of the philosopher David Hume. It was sent to a range of people, including heads of college and bishops. The idea was to promote discussion – but the result was that copies of the book were burnt and Shelley and his friend were expelled from Oxford. Shelley always argued in favour of free speech and tolerance; he optimistically ended an open letter (intended for publication) with the words:
“The time is rapidly approaching… when the Mahometan, the Jew, the Christian, the Deist, and the Atheist, will live together in one community, equally sharing in the benefits which arise from its association, and united in the bonds of brotherly love.”
Chilled by the hostility of those in power in England – and by the British winters! – Shelley spent much of his life overseas, turning for friendship to other writers, such as Byron, who found themselves in a similar position. But Shelley went on writing, covering a vast range of human subjects, from tender and delicate poems such as To a Skylark, to a poetic drama in honour of human freedom, Prometheus Unbound. He was conscious that half the human race at that time was denied a public voice, and said that as long as woman remained a “bond-slave” of man, life must remain “poisoned at the wells”.
Perhaps the greatest accolade to Shelley was the high praise accorded to him by other poets. William Wordsworth, himself a renowned poet, called Shelley “the best of all”.
Shelley died when the rather unstable boat in which he was sailing in Mediterranean with a companion capsized in a storm. His body was washed to shore, where his friends, who did not feel that a Church burial was right for Shelley, built a funeral pyre on the beach and said farewell to him. Shelley was one month short of thirty when he drowned.
One of his poems, Ozymandias, especially emphasises the futility of dictators who set themselves up as supremely important, only to have all their vain show wiped out by the passage of time. Shelley imagines a traveller in the desert who happens upon the remains of a huge statue, now broken, forgotten, half buried in the sand. Among the remains, the traveller reads an inscription:
“ ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Greatness, Shelley taught, lies not the power a person may snatch for personal glory. It lies rather in caring for one another and for nature, from which alone a universal quality of life can spring. That message is as true for our times as it was for his.
You can read a 2011 article from The Guardian on Shelley’s atheism by BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson here