Shelley’s poetry covers a variety of themes, but a reader of his poetry will almost always perceive some hint of radicalism, a challenge to one institutional tyranny or another: monarchy, government, church, or court. Thus, when analyzing Shelley’s work, it often is crucial to understand the state of affairs in Britain and Europe during Shelley’s lifetime (1792-1822), a time of institutional turmoil especially in France. The French Revolution, roughly 1789-1799, redesigned the power relationships between a state and its people and deeply altered the way all of Europe viewed government and class conflicts. France was redesigned again throughout the Napoleonic Era (through 1815). Meanwhile, as a young poet, Shelley was quick to invest in the progressive sociopolitical thought of Europe’s most respected (and also feared) revolutionary philosophers.
The other characteristic theme of Shelley’ poetry is what critics (not the poets themselves) have called Romanticism. The literary movement known as Romanticism generally runs between 1789-1822, corresponding to the dawn of the French Revolution and the deaths of Keats (in 1821) and Shelley. Literary scholars separate the Romantics into two camps, headed by three major poets in each. William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge heralded the first group of Romantics, while the second group was led by Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and John Keats. All of them tend to use nature as expression, personification, and radical thought to provoke a sense of revolution. Yet, critics persuasively argue that the second group resembled the first in few ways. Even the poets themselves saw important differences; for instance, Shelley particularly mocked earlier works of William Wordsworth. Shelley and Byron would blame their elder contemporaries for being “all talk and no action,” accusing them of abating their counter-cultural spirit as they aged.
On a personal level, consistent themes in Shelley’s work involve despair, doubt, and despondency. Shelley survived the deaths of three children and the legal separation of two. He was denounced by his own father and family, who were of respected social status in Middle England, as well as by his father-in-law, William Godwin, whom he held in the highest esteem philosophically. Finally, by the age of eighteen he was exiled by his beloved country. This is sometimes the price a revolutionary spirit pays for choosing literature instead of political power. Shelley made some of his own misfortune, too, not just by standing up for his principles (such as advocating atheism) but also by leaving his first wife. The battering taken by Shelley’s spirits, despite his relative success living the life he wanted regardless of social convention, took a large toll on the young man. Still, his poetry reveals a person who devoted his mind, soul, and life to the improvement of his native society as a voice for the people who lacked the courage or intelligence to challenge authority themselves.