It seems that poor old Percy Shelley seemed to have a few problems in publishing some of his books. While this poem was finished in 1819 it was not published until after his death in 1924. I suspect that it has something to do with the content of his writing upsetting a number of people. It wasn't as if England at the time was too conservative, but then again it was hardly like today were the content of Shelley's poems would unlikely cause much offence to people. However, considering that even today some poems (such as Salmin Rushdie) can still cause a major uproar in some parts of the world, it still seems we have a long way to go.
This poem is written as a conversation between two people, Julian and Maddalo and is based upon [author:Lord Byron] and Shelley himself. Maddalo, an English nobleman who has a rather bitter and cynical outlook on life, is Lord Byron, and Julian, the rationalistic atheist, is Shelley himself. As they talk while riding a Gondola through Venice they pass a lunatic asylum and decide to go in to pay a visit to a third person, somebody who is on the other side of a failed relationship (and I guess I can appreciate that love can have such an effect upon people that it would drive them insane - it has done so to me).
Love, and its psychological effect, seems to be at the core of this poem and I guess that is why we have a rather cynical Maddalo, though one wonders how a rationalistic Julian can balance his more scientific outlook on life with the madness of the inmate. I guess that is the problem with Utilitarianism (though I doubt Shelley is a strict Utilitarian since his poetry seems to shift between the romantic and the rational, though being a poet indicates that there is a strong romantic streak within him) and that is while it is focused on everything that can be measured (and even creating a matrix of happiness – that is trying to create a measurement of happiness, which is what modern economics try to do) it cannot understand the irrational, and in this case being love and the effect that it can have on the mind of another human.
It seems that ever since the enlightenment people have been attempting to measure the immeasurable (as I pointed out with happiness) and I suspect that this poem has something to do with that absurdity. The inmate represents that which is immeasurable, and that which is purely irrational. The poem then jumps many years at the end to show us that the inmate returned to his lover when she returned, but then she left him again (and now both are dead). Once again this is the triumph of the irrational (or could we say the tragedy of the irrational). One may think that due to the pain that was caused why did the inmate not learn from his past. I guess that is the irrational nature of humanity. As C.S. Lewis puts in his Four Loves, a couple would rather avoid the pain, no matter how short it may be, of a separation from eros by entering into a failed relationship. In short, humanity is an irrational creature and this is unlikely to change.