Percy Shelley: Poems

The Revolt Of Islam: A Poem In Twelve Cantos

Osais de Broton ethnos aglaiais aptomestha

perainei pros eschaton

ploon nausi d oute pezos ion an eurois

es Uperboreon agona thaumatan odon.

Pind. Pyth. x.

[Composed in the neighbourhood of Bisham Wood, near Great Marlow,]

Bucks, 1817 (April-September 23); printed, with title (dated 1818),

"Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of

the Nineteenth Century", October, November, 1817, but suppressed,

pending revision, by the publishers, C & J. Ollier. (A few copies had

got out, but these were recalled, and some recovered.) Published, with

a fresh title-page and twenty-seven cancel-leaves, as "The Revolt of

Islam", January 10, 1818. Sources of the text are (1) "Laon and

Cythna", 1818; (2) "The Revolt of Islam", 1818; (3) "Poetical Works",

1839, editions 1st and 2nd--both edited by Mrs. Shelley. A copy, with

several pages missing, of the "Preface", the Dedication", and "Canto

1" of "Laon and Cythna" is amongst the Shelley manuscripts at the

Bodleian. For a full collation of this manuscript see Mr. C.D.

Locock's "Examination of the Shelley Manuscripts at the Bodleian

Library". Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1903. Two manuscript fragments from

the Hunt papers are also extant: one (twenty-four lines) in the

possession of Mr. W.M. Rossetti, another (9 23 9 to 29 6) in that of

Mr. H. Buxton Forman, C.B. See "The Shelley Library", pages 83-86, for

an account of the copy of "Laon" upon which Shelley worked in revising

for publication.


The Poem which I now present to the world is an attempt from which I

scarcely dare to expect success, and in which a writer of established

fame might fail without disgrace. It is an experiment on the temper of

the public mind, as to how far a thirst for a happier condition of

moral and political society survives, among the enlightened and

refined, the tempests which have shaken the age in which we live. I

have sought to enlist the harmony of metrical language, the ethereal

combinations of the fancy, the rapid and subtle transitions of human

passion, all those elements which essentially compose a Poem, in the

cause of a liberal and comprehensive morality; and in the view of

kindling within the bosoms of my readers a virtuous enthusiasm for

those doctrines of liberty and justice, that faith and hope in

something good, which neither violence nor misrepresentation nor

prejudice can ever totally extinguish among mankind.

For this purpose I have chosen a story of human passion in its most

universal character, diversified with moving and romantic adventures,

and appealing, in contempt of all artificial opinions or institutions,

to the common sympathies of every human breast. I have made no attempt

to recommend the motives which I would substitute for those at present

governing mankind, by methodical and systematic argument. I would only

awaken the feelings, so that the reader should see the beauty of true

virtue, and be incited to those inquiries which have led to my moral

and political creed, and that of some of the sublimest intellects in

the world. The Poem therefore (with the exception of the first canto,

which is purely introductory) is narrative, not didactic. It is a

succession of pictures illustrating the growth and progress of

individual mind aspiring after excellence, and devoted to the love of

mankind; its influence in refining and making pure the most daring and

uncommon impulses of the imagination, the understanding, and the

senses; its impatience at 'all the oppressions which are done under

the sun;' its tendency to awaken public hope, and to enlighten and

improve mankind; the rapid effects of the application of that

tendency; the awakening of an immense nation from their slavery and

degradation to a true sense of moral dignity and freedom; the

bloodless dethronement of their oppressors, and the unveiling of the

religious frauds by which they had been deluded into submission; the

tranquillity of successful patriotism, and the universal toleration

and benevolence of true philanthropy; the treachery and barbarity of

hired soldiers; vice not the object of punishment and hatred, but

kindness and pity; the faithlessness of tyrants; the confederacy of

the Rulers of the World and the restoration of the expelled Dynasty by

foreign arms; the massacre and extermination of the Patriots, and the

victory of established power; the consequences of legitimate

despotism,--civil war, famine, plague, superstition, and an utter

extinction of the domestic affections; the judicial murder of the

advocates of Liberty; the temporary triumph of oppression, that secure

earnest of its final and inevitable fall; the transient nature of

ignorance and error and the eternity of genius and virtue. Such is the

series of delineations of which the Poem consists. And, if the lofty

passions with which it has been my scope to distinguish this story

shall not excite in the reader a generous impulse, an ardent thirst

for excellence, an interest profound and strong such as belongs to no

meaner desires, let not the failure be imputed to a natural unfitness

for human sympathy in these sublime and animating themes. It is the

business of the Poet to communicate to others the pleasure and the

enthusiasm arising out of those images and feelings in the vivid

presence of which within his own mind consists at once his inspiration

and his reward.

The panic which, like an epidemic transport, seized upon all classes

of men during the excesses consequent upon the French Revolution, is

gradually giving place to sanity. It has ceased to be believed that

whole generations of mankind ought to consign themselves to a hopeless

inheritance of ignorance and misery, because a nation of men who had

been dupes and slaves for centuries were incapable of conducting

themselves with the wisdom and tranquillity of freemen so soon as some

of their fetters were partially loosened. That their conduct could not

have been marked by any other characters than ferocity and

thoughtlessness is the historical fact from which liberty derives all

its recommendations, and falsehood the worst features of its

deformity. There is a reflux in the tide of human things which bears

the shipwrecked hopes of men into a secure haven after the storms are

past. Methinks, those who now live have survived an age of despair.

The French Revolution may be considered as one of those manifestations

of a general state of feeling among civilised mankind produced by a

defect of correspondence between the knowledge existing in society and

the improvement or gradual abolition of political institutions. The

year 1788 may be assumed as the epoch of one of the most important

crises produced by this feeling. The sympathies connected with that

event extended to every bosom. The most generous and amiable natures

were those which participated the most extensively in these

sympathies. But such a degree of unmingled good was expected as it was

impossible to realise. If the Revolution had been in every respect

prosperous, then misrule and superstition would lose half their claims

to our abhorrence, as fetters which the captive can unlock with the

slightest motion of his fingers, and which do not eat with poisonous

rust into the soul. The revulsion occasioned by the atrocities of the

demagogues, and the re-establishment of successive tyrannies in

France, was terrible, and felt in the remotest corner of the civilised

world. Could they listen to the plea of reason who had groaned under

the calamities of a social state according to the provisions of which

one man riots in luxury whilst another famishes for want of bread? Can

he who the day before was a trampled slave suddenly become

liberal-minded, forbearing, and independent? This is the consequence

of the habits of a state of society to be produced by resolute

perseverance and indefatigable hope, and long-suffering and

long-believing courage, and the systematic efforts of generations of

men of intellect and virtue. Such is the lesson which experience

teaches now. But, on the first reverses of hope in the progress of

French liberty, the sanguine eagerness for good overleaped the

solution of these questions, and for a time extinguished itself in the

unexpectedness of their result. Thus, many of the most ardent and

tender-hearted of the worshippers of public good have been morally

ruined by what a partial glimpse of the events they deplored appeared

to show as the melancholy desolation of all their cherished hopes.

Hence gloom and misanthropy have become the characteristics of the age

in which we live, the solace of a disappointment that unconsciously

finds relief only in the wilful exaggeration of its own despair. This

influence has tainted the literature of the age with the hopelessness

of the minds from which it flows. Metaphysics (I ought to except sir

W. Drummond's "Academical Questions"; a volume of very acute and

powerful metaphysical criticism.), and inquiries into moral and

political science, have become little else than vain attempts to

revive exploded superstitions, or sophisms like those of Mr. Malthus

(It is remarkable, as a symptom of the revival of public hope, that

Mr. Malthus has assigned, in the later editions of his work, an

indefinite dominion to moral restraint over the principle of

population. This concession answers all the inferences from his

doctrine unfavourable to human improvement, and reduces the "Essay on

Population" to a commentary illustrative of the unanswerableness of

"Political Justice".), calculated to lull the oppressors of mankind

into a security of everlasting triumph. Our works of fiction and

poetry have been overshadowed by the same infectious gloom. But

mankind appear to me to be emerging from their trance. I am aware,

methinks, of a slow, gradual, silent change. In that belief I have

composed the following Poem.

I do not presume to enter into competition with our greatest

contemporary Poets. Yet I am unwilling to tread in the footsteps of

any who have preceded me. I have sought to avoid the imitation of any

style of language or versification peculiar to the original minds of

which it is the character; designing that, even if what I have

produced be worthless, it should still be properly my own. Nor have I

permitted any system relating to mere words to divert the attention of

the reader, from whatever interest I may have succeeded in creating,

to my own ingenuity in contriving to disgust them according to the

rules of criticism. I have simply clothed my thoughts in what appeared

to me the most obvious and appropriate language. A person familiar

with nature, and with the most celebrated productions of the human

mind, can scarcely err in following the instinct, with respect to

selection of language, produced by that familiarity.

There is an education peculiarly fitted for a Poet, without which

genius and sensibility can hardly fill the circle of their capacities.

No education, indeed, can entitle to this appellation a dull and

unobservant mind, or one, though neither dull nor unobservant, in

which the channels of communication between thought and expression

have been obstructed or closed. How far it is my fortune to belong to

either of the latter classes I cannot know. I aspire to be something

better. The circumstances of my accidental education have been

favourable to this ambition. I have been familiar from boyhood with

mountains and lakes and the sea, and the solitude of forests: Danger,

which sports upon the brink of precipices, has been my playmate. I

have trodden the glaciers of the Alps, and lived under the eye of Mont

Blanc. I have been a wanderer among distant fields. I have sailed down

mighty rivers, and seen the sun rise and set, and the stars come

forth, whilst I have sailed night and day down a rapid stream among

mountains. I have seen populous cities, and have watched the passions

which rise and spread, and sink and change, amongst assembled

multitudes of men. I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages

of tyranny and war, cities and villages reduced to scattered groups of

black and roofless houses, and the naked inhabitants sitting famished

upon their desolated thresholds. I have conversed with living men of

genius. The poetry of ancient Greece and Rome, and modern Italy, and

our own country, has been to me, like external nature, a passion and

an enjoyment. Such are the sources from which the materials for the

imagery of my Poem have been drawn. I have considered Poetry in its

most comprehensive sense; and have read the Poets and the Historians

and the Metaphysicians (In this sense there may be such a thing as

perfectibility in works of fiction, notwithstanding the concession

often made by the advocates of human improvement, that perfectibility

is a term applicable only to science.) whose writings have been

accessible to me, and have looked upon the beautiful and majestic

scenery of the earth, as common sources of those elements which it is

the province of the Poet to embody and combine. Yet the experience and

the feelings to which I refer do not in themselves constitute men

Poets, but only prepares them to be the auditors of those who are. How

far I shall be found to possess that more essential attribute of

Poetry, the power of awakening in others sensations like those which

animate my own bosom, is that which, to speak sincerely, I know not;

and which, with an acquiescent and contented spirit, I expect to be

taught by the effect which I shall produce upon those whom I now


I have avoided, as I have said before, the imitation of any

contemporary style. But there must be a resemblance, which does not

depend upon their own will, between all the writers of any particular

age. They cannot escape from subjection to a common influence which

arises out of an infinite combination of circumstances belonging to

the times in which they live; though each is in a degree the author of

the very influence by which his being is thus pervaded. Thus, the

tragic poets of the age of Pericles; the Italian revivers of ancient

learning; those mighty intellects of our own country that succeeded

the Reformation, the translators of the Bible, Shakespeare, Spenser,

the Dramatists of the reign of Elizabeth, and Lord Bacon (Milton

stands alone in the age which he illumined.); the colder spirits of

the interval that succeeded;--all resemble each other, and differ from

every other in their several classes. In this view of things, Ford can

no more be called the imitator of Shakespeare than Shakespeare the

imitator of Ford. There were perhaps few other points of resemblance

between these two men than that which the universal and inevitable

influence of their age produced. And this is an influence which

neither the meanest scribbler nor the sublimest genius of any era can

escape; and which I have not attempted to escape.

I have adopted the stanza of Spenser (a measure inexpressibly

beautiful), not because I consider it a finer model of poetical

harmony than the blank verse of Shakespeare and Milton, but because in

the latter there is no shelter for mediocrity; you must either succeed

or fail. This perhaps an aspiring spirit should desire. But I was

enticed also by the brilliancy and magnificence of sound which a mind

that has been nourished upon musical thoughts can produce by a just

and harmonious arrangement of the pauses of this measure. Yet there

will be found some instances where I have completely failed in this

attempt, and one, which I here request the reader to consider as an

erratum, where there is left, most inadvertently, an alexandrine in

the middle of a stanza.

But in this, as in every other respect, I have written fearlessly. It

is the misfortune of this age that its Writers, too thoughtless of

immortality, are exquisitely sensible to temporary praise or blame.

They write with the fear of Reviews before their eyes. This system of

criticism sprang up in that torpid interval when Poetry was not.

Poetry, and the art which professes to regulate and limit its powers,

cannot subsist together. Longinus could not have been the contemporary

of Homer, nor Boileau of Horace. Yet this species of criticism never

presumed to assert an understanding of its own; it has always, unlike

true science, followed, not preceded, the opinion of mankind, and

would even now bribe with worthless adulation some of our greatest

Poets to impose gratuitous fetters on their own imaginations, and

become unconscious accomplices in the daily murder of all genius

either not so aspiring or not so fortunate as their own. I have sought

therefore to write, as I believe that Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton

wrote, with an utter disregard of anonymous censure. I am certain that

calumny and misrepresentation, though it may move me to compassion,

cannot disturb my peace. I shall understand the expressive silence of

those sagacious enemies who dare not trust themselves to speak. I

shall endeavour to extract, from the midst of insult and contempt and

maledictions, those admonitions which may tend to correct whatever

imperfections such censurers may discover in this my first serious

appeal to the Public. If certain Critics were as clear-sighted as they

are malignant, how great would be the benefit to be derived from their

virulent writings! As it is, I fear I shall be malicious enough to be

amused with their paltry tricks and lame invectives. Should the Public

judge that my composition is worthless, I shall indeed bow before the

tribunal from which Milton received his crown of immortality, and

shall seek to gather, if I live, strength from that defeat, which may

nerve me to some new enterprise of thought which may not be worthless.

I cannot conceive that Lucretius, when he meditated that poem whose

doctrines are yet the basis of our metaphysical knowledge, and whose

eloquence has been the wonder of mankind, wrote in awe of such censure

as the hired sophists of the impure and superstitious noblemen of Rome

might affix to what he should produce. It was at the period when

Greece was led captive and Asia made tributary to the Republic, fast

verging itself to slavery and ruin, that a multitude of Syrian

captives, bigoted to the worship of their obscene Ashtaroth, and the

unworthy successors of Socrates and Zeno, found there a precarious

subsistence by administering, under the name of freedmen, to the vices

and vanities of the great. These wretched men were skilled to plead,

with a superficial but plausible set of sophisms, in favour of that

contempt for virtue which is the portion of slaves, and that faith in

portents, the most fatal substitute for benevolence in the

imaginations of men, which, arising from the enslaved communities of

the East, then first began to overwhelm the western nations in its

stream. Were these the kind of men whose disapprobation the wise and

lofty-minded Lucretius should have regarded with a salutary awe? The

latest and perhaps the meanest of those who follow in his footsteps

would disdain to hold life on such conditions.

The Poem now presented to the Public occupied little more than six

months in the composition. That period has been devoted to the task

with unremitting ardour and enthusiasm. I have exercised a watchful

and earnest criticism on my work as it grew under my hands. I would

willingly have sent it forth to the world with that perfection which

long labour and revision is said to bestow. But I found that, if I

should gain something in exactness by this method, I might lose much

of the newness and energy of imagery and language as it flowed fresh

from my mind. And, although the mere composition occupied no more than

six months, the thoughts thus arranged were slowly gathered in as many


I trust that the reader will carefully distinguish between those

opinions which have a dramatic propriety in reference to the

characters which they are designed to elucidate, and such as are

properly my own. The erroneous and degrading idea which men have

conceived of a Supreme Being, for instance, is spoken against, but not

the Supreme Being itself. The belief which some superstitious persons

whom I have brought upon the stage entertain of the Deity, as

injurious to the character of his benevolence, is widely different

from my own. In recommending also a great and important change in the

spirit which animates the social institutions of mankind, I have

avoided all flattery to those violent and malignant passions of our

nature which are ever on the watch to mingle with and to alloy the

most beneficial innovations. There is no quarter given to Revenge, or

Envy, or Prejudice. Love is celebrated everywhere as the sole law

which should govern the moral world.


There is no danger to a man that knows

What life and death is: there's not any law

Exceeds his knowledge; neither is it lawful

That he should stoop to any other law.--CHAPMAN.