Percy Shelley: Poems

The Revolt Of Islam: Notes

Shelley possessed two remarkable qualities of intellect--a brilliant

imagination, and a logical exactness of reason. His inclinations led

him (he fancied) almost alike to poetry and metaphysical discussions.

I say 'he fancied,' because I believe the former to have been

paramount, and that it would have gained the mastery even had he

struggled against it. However, he said that he deliberated at one time

whether he should dedicate himself to poetry or metaphysics; and,

resolving on the former, he educated himself for it, discarding in a

great measure his philosophical pursuits, and engaging himself in the

study of the poets of Greece, Italy, and England. To these may be

added a constant perusal of portions of the old Testament--the Psalms,

the Book of Job, the Prophet Isaiah, and others, the sublime poetry of

which filled him with delight.

As a poet, his intellect and compositions were powerfully influenced

by exterior circumstances, and especially by his place of abode. He

was very fond of travelling, and ill-health increased this

restlessness. The sufferings occasioned by a cold English winter made

him pine, especially when our colder spring arrived, for a more genial

climate. In 1816 he again visited Switzerland, and rented a house on

the banks of the Lake of Geneva; and many a day, in cloud or sunshine,

was passed alone in his boat--sailing as the wind listed, or weltering

on the calm waters. The majestic aspect of Nature ministered such

thoughts as he afterwards enwove in verse. His lines on the Bridge of

the Arve, and his "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty", were written at this

time. Perhaps during this summer his genius was checked by association

with another poet whose nature was utterly dissimilar to his own, yet

who, in the poem he wrote at that time, gave tokens that he shared for

a period the more abstract and etherealised inspiration of Shelley.

The saddest events awaited his return to England; but such was his

fear to wound the feelings of others that he never expressed the

anguish he felt, and seldom gave vent to the indignation roused by the

persecutions he underwent; while the course of deep unexpressed

passion, and the sense of injury, engendered the desire to embody

themselves in forms defecated of all the weakness and evil which cling

to real life.

He chose therefore for his hero a youth nourished in dreams of

liberty, some of whose actions are in direct opposition to the

opinions of the world; but who is animated throughout by an ardent

love of virtue, and a resolution to confer the boons of political and

intellectual freedom on his fellow-creatures. He created for this

youth a woman such as he delighted to imagine--full of enthusiasm for

the same objects; and they both, with will unvanquished, and the

deepest sense of the justice of their cause, met adversity and death.

There exists in this poem a memorial of a friend of his youth. The

character of the old man who liberates Laon from his tower prison, and

tends on him in sickness, is founded on that of Doctor Lind, who, when

Shelley was at Eton, had often stood by to befriend and support him,

and whose name he never mentioned without love and veneration.

During the year 1817 we were established at Marlow in Buckinghamshire.

Shelley's choice of abode was fixed chiefly by this town being at no

great distance from London, and its neighbourhood to the Thames. The

poem was written in his boat, as it floated under the beech groves of

Bisham, or during wanderings in the neighbouring country, which is

distinguished for peculiar beauty. The chalk hills break into cliffs

that overhang the Thames, or form valleys clothed with beech; the

wilder portion of the country is rendered beautiful by exuberant

vegetation; and the cultivated part is peculiarly fertile. With all

this wealth of Nature which, either in the form of gentlemen's parks

or soil dedicated to agriculture, flourishes around, Marlow was

inhabited (I hope it is altered now) by a very poor population. The

women are lacemakers, and lose their health by sedentary labour, for

which they were very ill paid. The Poor-laws ground to the dust not

only the paupers, but those who had risen just above that state, and

were obliged to pay poor-rates. The changes produced by peace

following a long war, and a bad harvest, brought with them the most

heart-rending evils to the poor. Shelley afforded what alleviation he

could. In the winter, while bringing out his poem, he had a severe

attack of ophthalmia, caught while visiting the poor cottages. I

mention these things,--for this minute and active sympathy with his

fellow-creatures gives a thousandfold interest to his speculations,

and stamps with reality his pleadings for the human race.

The poem, bold in its opinions and uncompromising in their expression,

met with many censurers, not only among those who allow of no virtue

but such as supports the cause they espouse, but even among those

whose opinions were similar to his own. I extract a portion of a

letter written in answer to one of these friends. It best details the

impulses of Shelley's mind, and his motives: it was written with

entire unreserve; and is therefore a precious monument of his own

opinion of his powers, of the purity of his designs, and the ardour

with which he clung, in adversity and through the valley of the shadow

of death, to views from which he believed the permanent happiness of

mankind must eventually spring.

'Marlowe, December 11, 1817.

'I have read and considered all that you say about my general powers,

and the particular instance of the poem in which I have attempted to

develop them. Nothing can be more satisfactory to me than the interest

which your admonitions express. But I think you are mistaken in some

points with regard to the peculiar nature of my powers, whatever be

their amount. I listened with deference and self-suspicion to your

censures of "The Revolt of Islam"; but the productions of mine which

you commend hold a very low place in my own esteem; and this reassures

me, in some degree at least. The poem was produced by a series of

thoughts which filled my mind with unbounded and sustained enthusiasm.

I felt the precariousness of my life, and I engaged in this task,

resolved to leave some record of myself. Much of what the volume

contains was written with the same feeling--as real, though not so

prophetic--as the communications of a dying man. I never presumed

indeed to consider it anything approaching to faultless; but, when I

consider contemporary productions of the same apparent pretensions, I

own I was filled with confidence. I felt that it was in many respects

a genuine picture of my own mind. I felt that the sentiments were

true, not assumed. And in this have I long believed that my power

consists; in sympathy, and that part of the imagination which relates

to sentiment and contemplation. I am formed, if for anything not in

common with the herd of mankind, to apprehend minute and remote

distinctions of feeling, whether relative to external nature or the

living beings which surround us, and to communicate the conceptions

which result from considering either the moral or the material

universe as a whole. Of course, I believe these faculties, which

perhaps comprehend all that is sublime in man, to exist very

imperfectly in my own mind. But, when you advert to my Chancery-paper,

a cold, forced, unimpassioned, insignificant piece of cramped and

cautious argument, and to the little scrap about "Mandeville", which

expressed my feelings indeed, but cost scarcely two minutes' thought

to express, as specimens of my powers more favourable than that which

grew as it were from "the agony and bloody sweat" of intellectual

travail; surely I must feel that, in some manner, either I am mistaken

in believing that I have any talent at all, or you in the selection of

the specimens of it. Yet, after all, I cannot but be conscious, in

much of what I write, of an absence of that tranquillity which is the

attribute and accompaniment of power. This feeling alone would make

your most kind and wise admonitions, on the subject of the economy of

intellectual force, valuable to me. And, if I live, or if I see any

trust in coming years, doubt not but that I shall do something,

whatever it may be, which a serious and earnest estimate of my powers

will suggest to me, and which will be in every respect accommodated to

their utmost limits.

[Shelley to Godwin.]