Percy Shelley: Poems

Hellas: Preface

The poem of "Hellas", written at the suggestion of the events of the

moment, is a mere improvise, and derives its interest (should it be

found to possess any) solely from the intense sympathy which the

Author feels with the cause he would celebrate.

The subject, in its present state, is insusceptible of being treated

otherwise than lyrically, and if I have called this poem a drama from

the circumstance of its being composed in dialogue, the licence is not

greater than that which has been assumed by other poets who have

called their productions epics, only because they have been divided

into twelve or twenty-four books.

The "Persae" of Aeschylus afforded me the first model of my

conception, although the decision of the glorious contest now waging

in Greece being yet suspended forbids a catastrophe parallel to the

return of Xerxes and the desolation of the Persians. I have,

therefore, contented myself with exhibiting a series of lyric

pictures, and with having wrought upon the curtain of futurity, which

falls upon the unfinished scene, such figures of indistinct and

visionary delineation as suggest the final triumph of the Greek cause

as a portion of the cause of civilisation and social improvement.

The drama (if drama it must be called) is, however, so inartificial

that I doubt whether, if recited on the Thespian waggon to an Athenian

village at the Dionysiaca, it would have obtained the prize of the

goat. I shall bear with equanimity any punishment, greater than the

loss of such a reward, which the Aristarchi of the hour may think fit

to inflict.

The only "goat-song" which I have yet attempted has, I confess, in

spite of the unfavourable nature of the subject, received a greater

and a more valuable portion of applause than I expected or than it


Common fame is the only authority which I can allege for the details

which form the basis of the poem, and I must trespass upon the

forgiveness of my readers for the display of newspaper erudition to

which I have been reduced. Undoubtedly, until the conclusion of the

war, it will be impossible to obtain an account of it sufficiently

authentic for historical materials; but poets have their privilege,

and it is unquestionable that actions of the most exalted courage have

been performed by the Greeks--that they have gained more than one

naval victory, and that their defeat in Wallachia was signalized by

circumstances of heroism more glorious even than victory.

The apathy of the rulers of the civilised world to the astonishing

circumstance of the descendants of that nation to which they owe their

civilisation, rising as it were from the ashes of their ruin, is

something perfectly inexplicable to a mere spectator of the shows of

this mortal scene. We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our

religion, our arts have their root in Greece. But for Greece--Rome,

the instructor, the conqueror, or the metropolis of our ancestors,

would have spread no illumination with her arms, and we might still

have been savages and idolaters; or, what is worse, might have arrived

at such a stagnant and miserable state of social institution as China

and Japan possess.

The human form and the human mind attained to a perfection in Greece

which has impressed its image on those faultless productions, whose

very fragments are the despair of modern art, and has propagated

impulses which cannot cease, through a thousand channels of manifest

or imperceptible operation, to ennoble and delight mankind until the

extinction of the race.

The modern Greek is the descendant of those glorious beings whom the

imagination almost refuses to figure to itself as belonging to our

kind, and he inherits much of their sensibility, their rapidity of

conception, their enthusiasm, and their courage. If in many instances

he is degraded by moral and political slavery to the practice of the

basest vices it engenders--and that below the level of ordinary

degradation--let us reflect that the corruption of the best produces

the worst, and that habits which subsist only in relation to a

peculiar state of social institution may be expected to cease as soon

as that relation is dissolved. In fact, the Greeks, since the

admirable novel of Anastasius could have been a faithful picture of

their manners, have undergone most important changes; the flower of

their youth, returning to their country from the universities of

Italy, Germany, and France, have communicated to their fellow-citizens

the latest results of that social perfection of which their ancestors

were the original source. The University of Chios contained before the

breaking out of the revolution eight hundred students, and among them

several Germans and Americans. The munificence and energy of many of

the Greek princes and merchants, directed to the renovation of their

country with a spirit and a wisdom which has few examples, is above

all praise.

The English permit their own oppressors to act according to their

natural sympathy with the Turkish tyrant, and to brand upon their name

the indelible blot of an alliance with the enemies of domestic

happiness, of Christianity and civilisation.

Russia desires to possess, not to liberate Greece; and is contented to

see the Turks, its natural enemies, and the Greeks, its intended

slaves, enfeeble each other until one or both fall into its net. The

wise and generous policy of England would have consisted in

establishing the independence of Greece, and in maintaining it both

against Russia and the Turk;--but when was the oppressor generous or


[Should the English people ever become free, they will reflect upon]

the part which those who presume to represent their will have played

in the great drama of the revival of liberty, with feelings which it

would become them to anticipate. This is the age of the war of the

oppressed against the oppressors, and every one of those ringleaders

of the privileged gangs of murderers and swindlers, called Sovereigns,

look to each other for aid against the common enemy, and suspend their

mutual jealousies in the presence of a mightier fear. Of this holy

alliance all the despots of the earth are virtual members. But a new

race has arisen throughout Europe, nursed in the abhorrence of the

opinions which are its chains, and she will continue to produce fresh

generations to accomplish that destiny which tyrants foresee and

dread. (This paragraph, suppressed in 1822 by Charles Ollier, was

first restored in 1892 by Mr. Buxton Forman ["Poetical Works of P. B.

S.", volume 4 pages 40-41] from a proof copy of Hellas in his


The Spanish Peninsula is already free. France is tranquil in the

enjoyment of a partial exemption from the abuses which its unnatural

and feeble government are vainly attempting to revive. The seed of

blood and misery has been sown in Italy, and a more vigorous race is

arising to go forth to the harvest. The world waits only the news of a

revolution of Germany to see the tyrants who have pinnacled themselves

on its supineness precipitated into the ruin from which they shall

never arise. Well do these destroyers of mankind know their enemy,

when they impute the insurrection in Greece to the same spirit before

which they tremble throughout the rest of Europe, and that enemy well

knows the power and the cunning of its opponents, and watches the

moment of their approaching weakness and inevitable division to wrest

the bloody sceptres from their grasp.