Crime and Punishment, by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, declares: “The darker the night, the brighter the stars.” Percy Bysshe Shelley, maybe more than any other writer, embodied this. Shelley was born in 1792 and died in Italy in 1822 in a boating accident. A particularly terrible period in British and European history occurred during his brief but tragic adult life. After 1789’s French Revolution, dreams for a new world order had faded, and a new era of resentment had begun to take hold.
It was during those dark years that Shelley gave voice to a new spirit of resistance that was just beginning to emerge, but which would shock Europe to its core in the following decades. With an intensity probably unrivalled in the history of art, the artist’s outrage at injustice and revolutionary fervour flared brightly.
Wordsworth and Coleridge attitude toward revolutionary ideas
To appreciate how high Shelley’s light shined, it is helpful to compare him to earlier romantic writers like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose dreams had been dashed and whose political views had shifted to the right. Poet William Wordsworth writes in “The Prelude,” an autobiographical poem, about the excitement that he and others felt during the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789:
Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
Coleridge penned the following in “France: an ode,” published in 1798:
When France in wrath her giant-limbs upreared,
And with that oath, which smote air, earth, and sea,
Stamped her strong foot and said she would be free,
Bear witness for me, how I hoped and feared!
These people’s dreams were dashed by the harsh realities in Britain at the time. There was a window of opportunity for the expression of revolutionary ideas, but it was short-lived. The success of the British government’s wave of repression was a factor in this. By law, those who were suspected of being Jacobin sympathisers had to be hunted down and tried for treason. Government spies kept tabs on Wordsworth and Coleridge during the time they were writing their works. It was necessary for them to keep their feelings to themselves in this situation.
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Their expectations were dealt a further blow by happenings in France, as if the atmosphere of response at home were not depressing enough. In 1793, there was a horror followed by a Thermidorian response, which finally resulted in Napoleon’s reign. From that point forward, France and Britain were nearly perpetually at war.
The prosperous expectations of the 1790s were dashed in the 1800s. Britain was nearly wiped out in the fight with Napoleonic France. In 1811, just 12 million people lived in the country, but there were 640,000 active military personnel. In the name of “King and country,” increasingly greater efforts and sacrifices were expected from the impoverished. The cost of providing the army with human resources was in addition to the high taxes that were levied to pay for the war. Particularly for agricultural labourers, wages were kept at levels that would cause hunger.
Things scarcely changed when the war was over in 1816. Thousands perished from starvation as job prospects entirely disappeared. Those who were fortunate enough to have jobs may not have gone hungry, but the combination of pitifully low pay and horrendous working conditions made life hardly bearable. In industrial hubs like Manchester, the life expectancy of labourers fell to as low as seventeen.
Infractions of “law and order” carried a persistent danger of violent repression for the working class. The death sentence was imposed even for very minor crimes. Thousands were sent to the colonies as slaves. Those who dared to criticise the administration were sentenced to severe prison sentences.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s revolutionary spirit
Coleridge and Wordsworth, among others, lost up hope at this point, and Shelley simply had scorn for them.
Shelley wrote, “gloom and misanthropy have become the characteristics of the age in which we live, the solace of a disappointment that unconsciously finds relief only in the wilful exaggeration of its own despair”.
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English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley fought against traditional politics and ideals. His art mirrored the radical ideologies and revolutionary optimism of the day since he did not draw an essential separation between poetry and politics. Shelley, unlike Wordsworth or Coleridge, never gave up on the ideals of the French Revolution despite its failure.
With time, Shelley’s revolutionary inclinations will be beneficial. As stated in the preface to “The Revolt of Islam,” the author hopes that his readers will have a moral excitement for liberty and justice, as well as faith and trust in something good, that neither violence nor bigotry can ever completely destroy. As a poet, Shelley envisioned himself as a judge and an inspiration. That state of mind that the French Revolution instilled in him resulted in a zeal for improving the world. “The Return to Nature” was also part of the initial vision of the Revolutionary War. Nature-based living was thought to be the best path to happiness for humans.
In “Ode to The West Wind” Shelley portrays himself as a revolutionary who demands change. The West Wind is his representation of transformation because he wants to see societal progress. The author directly reflected his era in the creation of this iambic pentameter poem. Shelley believed that the environment of nature offered the possibility of moral, social, and political regeneration. He begs the wind for help since his life is miserable:
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.
As a result of his idealistic outlook, Shelley is driven to revolt. For the rest of his life, his vision was to create a perfect world where there was no evil, pain, or sorrow. Equality, Liberty and Fraternity will no longer be meaningless platitudes in a society where reason reigns supreme. Anguish over life’s injustice and immense faith in humanity’s bright future are both expressed in “Ode to West Wind,” a poem written by the poet. These three concepts are all woven together throughout the poem. To lift and energise his soul from the depths of misery, depression and exhaustion, the poet considers the “West Wind” to be a suitable emblem.
The poet is a heroic, tragic, and prophetic figure in Shelley’s poetry. As a poet, he has the power to transform the world for the better and bring about political, social, and spiritual change via his writings. Unlike Christ, Shelley’s poet is like Prometheus, the Greek god who stole heavenly fire and gave it to humanity. Using the metaphor of withered leaves, the poet urges the west wind to “make me thy lyre” in order to embody his own Spirit and spread his ideas across the cosmos. A prophesy needs a trumpet, and the wind is the best one.
In many ways, the Revolution was a spiritual awakening for Shelley, the beginning of a new chapter in his life. Slavery was the root of all evil, he believed. When a person is free, he or she is able to develop naturally. Liberty, in his view, was defined as the absence of external restrictions. The French Revolution’s original motto was “Liberty.” Similarly, the Revolution sparked Shelley and Wordsworth’s imaginations. In contrast, the fire in Wordsworth quickly died out, whereas Shelley’s remained burning throughout his short life and pervaded his poetry.
Through his revolutionary writings, I believe he was expressing the following: I am against God. I am opposed to the king. I am the contemporary Prometheus, and I will steal fire from the gods, tear down kingdoms, and give the people authority. These concepts were quite groundbreaking at the time. No surprise he frightened others. But not only did he say these things, as we will see, he was also constructing a method to fulfil this promise. His methodology was founded in part on his intrinsic skepticism, of which he was a surprisingly adept practitioner. As have all skeptics from the start of history, he utilised it to undermine authority and challenge claims of truth.