Percy Shelley called himself an atheist. How does this perspective work in Shelley’s poetry?
Answer: “Ode to the West Wind,” “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” “To a Skylark,” and “Mont Blanc” are good sources for answering this question. Shelley found power in nature and in the human mind’s ability to understand nature. Shelley looks on religion as superstition that distracts people from the reality of nature. In place of divine wonder, Shelley finds wonder and spirit in the natural world, such as in the sublime Mont Blanc or the ubiquitous wind.
In typical Romantic fashion, Shelley turns to nature as both the creator and preserver of power “both seen and unseen.” Discuss how he uses nature to express this theme.
Answer: For Shelley, nature outlasts the human things and especially the artificial things that humans construct, both in the world (such as a statue) and in the mind (in emotion and superstition). Nature preserves an eternal reality, even though everything is mutable. An interesting essay would examine how “Mutability” simultaneously expresses stasis and change.
What is Shelley doing in the final stanza of “The Mask of Anarchy”?
Answer: The stanza is: “Rise, like lions after slumber, / In unvanquishable number, / Shake your chains to earth like dew, / Which in sleep had fall’n on you! / Ye are many, they are few.” This is a call to arms. The people have been oppressed, and the state’s forces have murdered people in various ways, so it is time to fight back. The first step for the people is to awaken and realize that they are oppressed, and if they all do so together, their sheer numbers should give them confidence. But then they still need to release themselves from their chains of oppression, which should be easy enough given their collective power. This kind of revolution does not have to be bloody; the people merely need to show their great, lion-like power. Yet, will this strategy really work?
What is going on in “Adonais”?
Answer: Adonais is an elegy written to compare the poet John Keats to the mythical Adonais and to express Keats’ greatness. Some parts of the poem give Keats the majesty of a resurrected Jesus. Other parts are mournful and respectful to honor a person deserving of the highest accolades. The overall structure suggests that Shelley is leading the reader through the different stages of the grieving process, perhaps also helping himself through some of his sadness over the death of his good friend.
How was Shelley a radical, as articulated in his poetry?
Answer: Shelley’s political poems suggest that much is wrong with England—so much, in fact, that revolution seems like the best recourse for the people. The court, religious powers, the laws, and the upper class in general all suck the lifeblood out of the English people. The radical answer is in a sense reactionary: it is to inspire the oppressed masses to reclaim their historic rights as Englishmen under England’s old laws, before the newer oppressive institutions took over. An even more radical solution is to turn to nature and reason, avoiding superstition and focusing on reality.
After Shelley drowned, in response to an unkind review of Shelley, Lord Byron wrote: “You are all brutally mistaken about Shelley, who was, without exception, the best and least selfish man I ever knew. I never knew one who was not a beast in comparison.” Why might he have written this about Shelley?
Answer: Although Shelley was shunned for his unconventional personal opinions and lifestyle, he wrote many poems to inspire oppressed people to rise up against their oppressors. It would be hard to see this pattern as selfish. Also, Shelley’s extreme humility in the face of the majestic spirit of nature suggests selflessness. Shelley accepts nature’s power but is very skeptical of human power exerted by one person against another.
What is going on in "The Indian Serenade"? Make an argument for a certain interpretation of the poem.
Answer: Answering this question depends on a close reading of the poem in order to defend an interpretation. The interpreter should decide whether to make the lover male or female, and whether to make the beloved male or female. Does Shelley make that issue ambiguous on purpose? The interpreter also should decide whether this is mainly a serious poem about the state of the poet towards some goal—taking the nightingale as a symbol of the poet—or a bawdy poem about sex.
Discuss Shelley’s treatment of “change.”
Answer: A good place to start is in “Mutability,” with the point that the one constant in the universe, natural and human, is change: “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; / Nought may endure but Mutability.” “Ozymandias” shows that human things pass away, and the river in “Mont Blanc” suggests that even the largest mountain might pass away if it is worn down over a long enough time. On the political side, change is important for the oppressed to break free of their oppressors, but change for its own sake is thoughtless.
Shelley appears to be the saddest in “A Dirge.” Why did he have reason to be sad?
Answer: Shelley was married twice. He lost one wife to suicide, and the other entered a great state of depression. He lost three of his children to infant death, and he constantly pursued women, ignoring his civic duties as husband and father, which alienated his society from him. He lived free but as a social exile. By the time he wrote “A Dirge,” his close friend Keats had died. Nature, with all its great spirit, does not provide solace in “A Dirge”; instead, it reflects his own mood.
Which of Shelley’s poems seems to be the most effective “battle cry” to inspire the English? Consider “Song to the Men of England,” “England in 1819,” and “The Mask of Anarchy.”
Answer: Different poems might inspire different groups of Englishmen in different ways. Consider who might be reading a song with easy diction like “Song to the Men of England,” and who might be reading a highly metaphoric piece such as “The Mask of Anarchy.” Probably no one could honestly disagree with the opening line about George III in “England in 1819,” but how effective would these poems be at persuading the people that even their religious leaders are oppressing them? To the extent that the poems are aimed at the working classes, the lines about blood-sucking, impotent upper-class drones should have a reasonably good chance of awakening the people to the basic reality of who is freeloading in this society, but such language is no way to make friends among the upper classes.