Percy Shelley: Poems

Percy Shelley: Poems Summary

“Mutability” (1814)

A first-person poetic persona compares people to restless clouds. Clouds speed brightly across the sky but disappear at night, presumably like a human life. The persona then compares people to lyres, stringed instruments, that are always playing different tunes based on different experiences. The persona then complains that whether we are asleep or awake, a bad dream or a “wandering thought” interferes with our happiness. Whatever we think, however we feel, “It is the same,” meaning that all will pass away and people will change. Thus, the one thing that endures is “Mutability.”

“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” (1816)

In seven stanzas, a first-person poetic persona turns inward to appreciate the power of knowledge and wonders how to recapture it. In the first stanza, he describes the spirit of natural beauty with awe; it is a power that can hardly be grasped. He addresses that spirit in the second stanza; it seems to be gone, leaving humans in gloom. People have tried to name it, but they have made it something supernatural, like a ghost; instead of superstition, people should focus on the graceful light of reality and truth. In the fourth stanza, knowledge appears to be more enduring than emotions such as love; it lights up the heart.

The persona then recalls his youth, when he used to seek passing or imaginary things like “ghosts” and love, but then the deep shadow of nature’s reality fell upon him, and he felt the ecstasy of the possibility of intellectual knowledge. He vowed to dedicate his powers to knowledge and study. He also has always hoped that knowledge “wouldst free / This world from its dark slavery” to superstition. In the final stanza, he adds that he has worshiped knowledge of nature, which provides calm love and conquers fear.

“Mont Blanc’ (1816)

In five stanzas, a first-person poetic persona addresses the mountain in its sublime majesty. In the first stanza, he considers “the everlasting universe of things” that he infers from observing nature. Human thought in comparison is feeble, gaining its splendor from the natural world that it thinks about. The second stanza focuses on the mountain itself, with its crags, trees, and ice, but together something huge and sublime; it is dizzying, too big even for independent thought to capture it. The feeling that he cannot comprehend it all continues; as he works to take it all in, the serene mountain awaits, unmoved. He is tempted to resort to mythology but realizes that nature is too strong for that, for merely human things. The wise see nature’s reality. In the fourth stanza, he expands past the mountain to more of the natural world, which persists long past any human life; we do not have access to that raw immortality. Nature’s power, or the mountain’s, is like an unstoppable glacier. In the last stanza, he turns his eyes back to the mountain’s features, finally concluding that the spirit of nature is in the mountain, which finally teaches him that knowing such things fills his mind with a welcome, silent solitude.

“Ozymandias” (1817)

The persona states that he met a traveler who had seen a vast but ruined statue; only the legs remained standing. The statue's pedestal told onlookers that they should despair at the King’s great works, but the whole area has been reduced to sand.

“The Mask of Anarchy” (1819)

The poet has learned of the massacre at Manchester, characterized by anarchic murder rather than a true spirit of revolution. He personifies Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, various Destructions, and Anarchy. Anarchy leads armed forces through England, scaring the population. Anarchy claims to be God, King, and Law, rejecting all traditional sources of authority and power. Some choose to follow him. As his forces proceed with their destruction, even Hope cries out in despair. Finally, however, a mist of hope emerges, carrying thoughts. This revives Hope and kills Anarchy. The land of England seems to speak to the English, asking them to rise and retake true freedom, since they really had been oppressed. Instead of trading “blood for blood” and “wrong for wrong,” the people should finally turn back to justice, wisdom, peace, and love in order to achieve liberty. They should be guided by “Science, Poetry, and Thought” and quiet virtues. The true revolution should be “measured” and use words instead of swords, drawing on the “old laws of England” instead of the new laws of the oppressors. When the tyrants fight back, the people should let their anger show itself until the tyrants fall back in shame. The people will then “Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number” to reform England.

“England in 1819” (1819)

This sonnet provides a kind of journalistic report on the state of England in 1819. King George III was “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying,” with his son ruling England because George III was unable to do so. The people are “starved and stabbed,” while the army and the laws simultaneously exert power and hurt the people. The Christian leaders are “Christless.” Yet, maybe some new, calm light will arise from the best of old England.

"Song to the Men of England"

Once again, the poet takes eight stanzas to call upon the people on England to understand and do something about their state of oppression. People plow for the sake of the lords, who are like drone bees that do no work but live off of the work of others. The people of England are doing the real work—but, the poet asks, are they gaining any benefit from this system? They are not enjoying the fruits of their labor, and the tyrants are taking their wealth and very lives without giving them the recompense they deserve. The call is to sow their own seed, weave their own robes, and forge their own arms in their own defense. Otherwise, the people are merely digging their own graves.

Ode to the West Wind” (1819)

A first-person persona addresses the west wind in five stanzas. It is strong and fearsome. In the first stanza, the wind blows the leaves of autumn. In the second stanza, the wind blows the clouds in the sky. In the third stanza, the wind blows across an island and the waves of the sea. In the fourth stanza, the persona imagines being the leaf, cloud, or wave, sharing in the wind’s strength. He desires to be lifted up rather than caught low on “the thorns of life,” for he sees himself as like the wind: “tameless, and swift, and proud.” In the final stanza, he asks the wind to play upon him like a lyre; he wants to share the wind’s fierce spirit. In turn, he would have the power to spread his verse throughout the world, reawakening it.

“The Indian Serenade” (1819)

In 24 lines, Shelley takes on the poetic form of the extravagant Oriental love poem. The first-person persona has been dreaming of her (or his) beloved. She awakens and follows her feet to her beloved’s window. She feels like a nightingale with a song to sing. She feels herself faint in the grass, calling out for her beloved to pull her up into his embrace.

“To a Skylark” (1820)

The persona extols the virtues of the skylark, a bird that soars and sings high in the air. It flies too high to see, but it can be heard, making it like a spirit, or a maiden in a tower, or a glow-worm hidden in the grass, or the scent of a rose. The skylark’s song is better than the sound of rain and better than human poetry. What is the subject of the bird’s song, so free of the pains of love? Perhaps it sings because it knows that the alternative is death. The bird does not have the same longings and cares that interfere with human happiness. Yet, it is these things that help us appreciate the pure beauty of the birdsong; perhaps the skylark’s song could become the persona’s muse.

“Adonais” (1821)

Shelley wrote this long poem as an elegy for Shelley’s close friend and fellow poet John Keats, who died in Rome of tuberculosis at the age of 26. The mood of the poem begins in dejection, but ends in optimism—hoping Keats’ spark of brilliance reverberates through the generations of future poets and inspires revolutionary change throughout Europe. Adonis is the stand-in for Keats, for he too died at a young age after being mauled by a boar. In Shelley’s version, the “beast” responsible for Keats’s death is the literary critic, specifically one from London’s Quarterly who gave a scathing review of Keats’ poem “Endymion” (Shelley was unaware of the true cause of Keats’s death). Urania (also known as “Venus” or “Aphrodite”), who is Adonis’ lover in the myth, is rewritten here as the young man’s mother (possibly because Keats had no lover at the time of his death). In a sense, Keats is not dead, for like other great poets, he lives within those who benefited from his life and poetry, and he is alive because he is “one with Nature.” He is even Christlike, a divinity among the best of poets. Even so, he died too soon. In death, he beacons the living to join him in eternity.

“A Dirge” (1822)

Themes of isolation, loneliness, and death characterize this eight-line poem. The wind moans in grief beyond words; the storm rains in vain; the trees are bare and straining under their own weight. The world is all caves and gloom, all wrong!