The Writings of Percy Shelley

The Major Works (Oxford World's Classics) - Percy Bysshe Shelley, Zachary Leader, Michael O'Neill

Okay, this is more a collection of his works compiled by somebody else, and many of these works did not actually see the light of day until long after Shelley died, however this particular book does give you a very broad scope of the poems, and a couple of prose essays, of Percy Shelley. Mind you, I began reading this book while I was in London because I felt that being in that marvellous city I should immerse myself in the literature that was produced there. So, wondering into Hyde Park and sitting down beside the Round Pound with a cup of tea on what was an incredibly cold morning, I opened this book and began to read his poetry. However, as it turns out, most of his work was not written in England but rather when he was in Italy (still, there is something to be said about sitting by the round pond, with a cup of tea, on a cold morning, reading Percy Shelley).


Percy Shelley had the misfortune of dying quite young. He was 29 when he died, apparently in a boating accident in the Adriatic sea, and much of his work was written in the final stages of his life, between 1818 and 1821. However, considering the length and breadth of some of his writings, it is amazing what he actually produced in such a short space of time. Now, Shelley was not a poor man, rather he was a member of the upper class who could get away with whiling his time away in Italian villas writing poetry. In those days if you wanted to be a successful writer you needed two things, an education, and free time. These days education (at least here in Australia) is much more accessible than it was in Shelley's time, and even then, you do not need to be a member of the wealthy class to succeed as an author (my friend Peter managed to do it).


Now, many people consider Shelley to be a romantic poet, and in a sense while that may be true, and while I have only read a smattering of [author:Coleridge] and [author:Wordsworth], I must say that his poetry seems to be a lot more down to Earth than what we get from the other romantics. If [author:Gustav Flaubert] is anything to go by romantics tend to live with their heads in the clouds letting emotion pretty much rule the day, and rejecting reason and science. Shelley is somewhat different in that he is much more of a political critic, and much of his poetry demonstrates this. In fact, if he is not attacking the current government of the day, he is attacking the church, which, in a way, was very much one and the same.


For instance, he writes a poem about how during that battle of Austerlitz the Austrian and Prussian generals sat away from the battlefield in their tents directing the battle, while Napoleon was in there with his men fighting alongside them. In a way it is clear that Shelley had a great admiration for Napoleon because what Napoleon demonstrated was that he was willing to get his hands dirty, to stand with his men, and to be counted as one of them. Remember even when Napoleon was defeated and exiled to Elba, he managed to escape and return to France, and when he did this he was welcomed with open arms and once again made emperor. Even today the French still hold Napoleon on high regard.


However it is interesting that despite all of the mourning that Shelley pours out onto the page regarding the failure of the French Revolution, and the restoration of the French Monarchy in 1815, he unlikely ever actually could remember the revolution. The revolution began in 1789, though the root causes go back much further, and ended with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 at Waterloo. Shelley died in 1822, which means that he would have been born in 1793, which means that he would have been 7 years old when Napoleon was proclaimed emperor and during his teenage years all he would have known were the Napoleonic Wars. He would not have remembered (let alone been born) during Robespierre's reign of terror.


Further, we tend to see that Shelley has a rather idealistic view of revolution and progress, yet would fail to see how progress in itself is dialectical. All he knew was the failed French Revolution which came about full circle with the restoration of the Monarchy. Granted, he would have also known of the American Revolution, and even writes about the American Republic, considering it to be one of the freest nations in the world. However, what he does not know, and would have unlikely known, was that all the American Revolution did was simply change the faces of those in power. The position of the labourer in the United States, before and after the revolution, did not change, and in fact there was resistance from the ordinary person in the United States to actually join the fight against the British. The revolution have little to do with freedom and democracy and everything to do with free trade. If you look at the Declaration of Independence you will notice that while it will boldly proclaim that all men are created equal, the rest of the document deals primarily with economic issues with regards to trade and taxation, something which was of interest only to the landed aristocrats.


While today the United States proclaims itself as a beacon of democracy to the world, many of their wars are more about opening up markets in regions where the markets are closed. It is using the mantra of political freedom to promote not political freedom but economic freedom, that is the freedom for American corporations to come in, set up shop, and to drive out competition. It is not about justice and equality before the law, but rather about dismantling government regulation and barriers to trade. It is about driving the small, independent businessman to the wall as Walmart opens its doors across the street. It is about using patent law to ban generic drugs and to allow big pharma to provide life saving medicines at prohibitive prices.


However, we must remember the time in which Shelley was writing. This was before Marx, and the industrial revolution was only just beginning. It was still a period where the nobility held sway and the divine right of kings determined who would rule. However much had changed because the French revolution, and Napoleon, had spread the idea of political freedom across continental Europe, and the power of the king in England was giving way to the power of the Parliament. It was about spreading the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers, and the growth in intellectual understanding of the world, and the dispelling of the superstitious myths that dominated the mind of the ordinary people. It was a world that was in flux, a world that had emerged with the superstition of the medieval ages, and was in the road to modernity, and Shelley was one of the guides who helped us move along that road.