For Percy Bysshe Shelley, Literature Was the Spark of the Revolution

After the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, the young radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley proclaimed he was deserting “the odorous gardens of literature” for “the great sandy desert of politics.” Instead, he infused literature with revolutionary political ideas.

Painting portrait of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at the Baths of Caracalla, depicted writing Prometheus Unbound in a posthumous picture by Joseph Severn, Rome, Italy, 1845. (Fototeca Gilardi / Getty Images)

Literary reputations are fickle things. Consensus surrounding a particular author often rests on the prevailing orthodoxy of a given era’s politics and its corresponding tastes. Radical styles are often easier to assimilate than radical ideas, and writers whose politics crowd their canon tend to go in and out of popularity depending on the intellectual fashions of the period.

Few authors have fluctuated in popularity as much as Percy Bysshe Shelley, who died two hundred years ago this summer, and it should come as no surprise that where he is most derided, the source of alienation is almost invariably the radicalness of his politics.

He is most unpopular, predictably, among those we would consider to be conservatives or reactionaries. High Victorians like Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold found him immature. T. S. Eliot, whose right-wing politics couldn’t have been further from Shelley, had a strange disdain for the poet and the man, calling Shelley’s ideas “repellent.” When Shelley’s reputation improved in the ’60s and ’70s, his politics were largely normalized or glossed over — an omission that led an aggrieved Paul Foot to write Red Shelley in 1981, a book that sought to reassert Shelley’s radicalism and place him (a bit uncomfortably) in a tradition of revolutionary socialism leading up to Marx.

But Shelley’s dissidence was, if anything, more antique. A skeptic who disdained religious and political authority, he fused poetic expression with the use of reason — a synthesis that led Harold Bloom to call him an “English Lucretius.” For the young radical, literature was the spark that could light the fire of enlightenment and move people to rise up and overthrow their oppressors.

Child of Revolution

Shelley was a child of revolution. He was born in August 1792, when the new American republic was still fresh and the First French Republic was about to be established. That same year, Thomas Paine released the second volume of his Rights of Man, which was followed by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Six months after Shelley’s birth, Louis XVI was taken to the guillotine, and a few weeks later, William Godwin, the philosopher who would have the greatest influence on Shelley’s intellectual development, published An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Shelley would later make his affiliation with Wollstonecraft and Godwin official when he eloped with their daughter, Mary Godwin — who became Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley — in 1814.

Shelley belonged to a new wave of radicals. Born around the time of the French Revolution, this generation spent much of its time contemplating the failures of that revolution while also attempting to transplant its ideas to England. The existential threat it posed was recognized by the British government, which imposed brutal crackdowns in an attempt to quell the intellectual contagion. Britain was under the rule of the demented King George III, the European powers were restoring their monarchies, and reactionary movements were reasserting their influence with the backing of churches. Libel laws were mercurial and draconian, and anything that was perceived as vaguely seditious could easily land one in prison. Shelley was routinely tailed and monitored by the Home Office. This eventually forced him to flee to Italy in 1818, joining the likes of John Keats and Lord Byron, where he remained in exile for the rest of his life. As a result, much of his work went unpublished in his lifetime.

Born into a landed family to a Whig father, Shelley was not exactly swaddled in tricolored cloth. An iconoclast from the outset, his reputation as a subversive and a misfit was well known to his schoolmasters. While at Eton, he refused to partake in “fagging,” a hazing ritual where younger students act as servants for older ones. And in 1811, he was expelled from Oxford for refusing to deny authorship of a blasphemous pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, which opens with the bold proclamation: “There is no God!” and concludes, more modestly, “Every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity.” He was nineteen at the time.

Shelley was, like many of his contemporaries, a bourgeois radical, a turncoat to his own class. And like many renegades of the aristocracy, he hated the obscenities of wealth and authority but was largely oblivious to the real condition of the poor. When he went to Ireland in 1812 to campaign on behalf of Catholic emancipation, he was shocked by his first encounter with abject poverty. This ignorance was shared by Godwin, whose anarchist philosophy paid no mind to mobilization among the masses and delegated the responsibility of organizing society to an educated minority. Godwin, who thought Shelley was wasting his time in Ireland, eschewed the idea of revolutionary action among the people and instead argued that real reform should come through the evolution of reasoned discourse.

Shelley’s ideas are clearly locatable within a tradition of English radicalism and libertarianism, but the big influence early in his life was Godwin. Under Godwin, Shelley developed a philosophy of rational anarchism, the essence of which was self-governance based on the supremacy of reason — the argument being that since the state exists only to restrain vice, it would naturally wither away as people became more enlightened. Antiauthoritarian to the core, Shelley’s anarchism was fundamentally atheistic and elected reason and nature (in the romantic sense) as the source and origin of moral judgment.

We see early expressions of these ideas in Declaration of Rights (1812), a Painean-style pamphlet of enumerated statements that Shelley wrote at the tender age of twenty. The pamphlet opens:

Government has no rights; it is a delegation from several individuals for the purpose of securing their own. . . . It is therefore just, only so far as it exists by their consent, useful only so far as it operates to their well-being.

That Shelley wrote this when he was so young, having barely seen life outside of his home, shows his self-confidence and his eagerness to emulate his intellectual heroes.

Much of the Declaration is derivative or restates ideas that had already been set down a generation earlier. Still, it contains some original Shelleyan contributions, like the notion that the earth is a common treasury and that “no man has a right to monopolize more than he can enjoy.” The entries concerning free expression, such as “A man has a right to unrestricted liberty of discussion, falsehood is a scorpion that will sting itself to death,” also anticipates a Millian idealism about the self-defeating nature of error and the triumph of truth over falsehood in unrestricted discourse.

Shelley’s Contradictions

As the character Scythrop in Nightmare Abbey, Thomas Love Peacock portrayed Shelley as a melancholic figure, tormented by his “passion for reforming the world” and constantly laying “deep schemes for a thorough repair of the crazy fabric of human nature.” This is a classic description of most juvenile radicals: impatient, millenarian, eager, and naive; a young man desperate for change before he can even settle his own position.

There is some truth to the portrayal. Poetry, which Shelley often approached as an instrument of revolution, was thus the premier delivery system for his atheist and anarchist ideas — as seen in the major works: Queen Mab, The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, and The Triumph of Life. The most visceral expression came in “The Masque of Anarchy,” a bellicose poem that Shelley fired off in a rage after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, when cavalry regiments charged crowds of protesters who had gathered to demand franchise and parliamentary representation: “Rise, like lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number! / Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you: Ye are many — they are few!”

The poem is a fist-clenching call, comparable to the battle cry of the most hardened revolutionary, and its image of shackles being thrown off is clearly echoed in the closing lines of the Communist Manifesto. Later that year, and with a little more sangfroid, Shelley composed his own manifesto, “A Philosophical View of Reform.” Shelley wrote the essay in a notebook over the winter of 1819–1820, and though it went unpublished in his lifetime, it remains the most comprehensive expression of his political ideas. It sheds the symbolism and allegorical approach Shelley honed in his poetry and sets down a real program for reform. In writing it, he reported to a friend, “I have deserted the odorous gardens of literature to journey across the great sandy desert of Politics.”

The essay proposes several pillars of reform: reorganization of the parliamentary system based on democratic representation, meaning an abolition of the monarchy and the hereditary aristocracy; abolition of the standing army (which was commonly deployed as a police force and an apparatus of control); abolition of sinecures; abolition of tithes (taxes paid to the state church), disestablishment of the church, and making all opinions regarding the origins of government free and equal under the law; reform of the judiciary, making access to courts swift and inexpensive; and finally, abolition of the national debt, to be paid for by the wealthy.

But the main question the essay wrestles with — and never answers — is: When is it reasonable to hold out for gradual, moderate reform, and when does violent action become necessary and inevitable? Shelley understood that every revolution carries with it a cycle of revenge (“men having been injured desire to injure in return”) and his pacific nature made him averse to violence. But he also understood that violent action is by definition an act of desperation and a “legitimate expression of that misery.”

Shelley’s irrepressible ambivalence toward revolutionary violence comes through in the manifesto. His faith in public enlightenment and reasoned discourse still held out the possibility of peaceful reform: “If the majority are enlightened, united, impelled by a uniform enthusiasm, then the struggle is merely nominal.” At the same time, he knew that many of the reforms he proposed would not be granted by those in power, as they would constitute a direct surrender of that power. If the state used violence to suppress legitimate and peaceful appeals for reform, then “the last resort of resistance is undoubtedly insurrection.” In the original draft, Shelley wrote — and then crossed out — the next sentence: “Insurrection is, in certain emergencies, not only an inalienable right, but a duty from which temporary consequences can dispense us.” The essay then goes on to caution people once again against the use of violence for a few more paragraphs before stopping mid-sentence.

That the manifesto was never completed reflects the incompleteness of Shelley’s approach to revolutionary action. He was never able to reconcile the paradox that has dogged many revolutionaries for generations: the necessity of change, but an unwillingness to accept violence as a condition to achieve that change. Shelley’s intellectual corpus is defined by such contradictions, and these ironies generate a tension that is almost incandescent. There is clearly friction, for instance, between the impatient, millenarian ambition for rapid change and a gradualist approach that rests on public enlightenment, which tug at one another throughout the essay and never resolve. There is also a conflict between the hermetic, poetic consciousness that wishes to be detached from society and the public consciousness demanded by the engagement in a revolutionary struggle. Shelley rarely participated in these struggles “on the ground” and wrote mostly in a state of isolated comfort, in solitude or exile. We see Shelley’s attempt to reconcile these positions in “A Defense of Poetry” — far more politically charged than most take it to be — which proclaims poets to be “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (a line that also appears in “A Philosophical View of Reform”). As a poet, Shelley was unable to part with the notion that political transformations are best achieved through a gradual revolution in sensibilities, which are to be shepherded by the artist.

The Spirit of Liberty

Shelley’s entire oeuvre is in a sense, juvenilia. “For heaven’s sake,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “publish nothing before you are thirty.” But Shelley produced his entire life’s work before that time, having died a few weeks before his thirtieth birthday.

Champions of Shelley’s affiliation with revolutionary socialism may consider his early death to be a saving grace. Had he lived, he could have risked becoming a reactionary or a conservative, joining the ranks of poets like William Wordsworth. But again, this dredges up the old prejudice about Shelley’s “maturity,” and it assumes that the proper course of one’s intellectual and moral development is to grow out of left-wing radicalism and into invertebrate liberalism.

There are indeed trappings of youth in Shelley’s work — occasional self-indulgence, egotism, and a tendency toward the melodramatic. There is also some showing off — flourishes of learning, and baroque, Ciceronian prose. But to insist on these is to ignore Shelley’s precocity, the acceleration of his intellectual development, and the nuance in his thinking. His work shows an acute awareness of contradictions (rare in times of revolutionary fervor), a self-conscious struggle between pragmatic and idealist approaches to reform, and a skepticism toward utopian panaceas (rendered in Prometheus Unbound as literally playing with fire). By the time we get to the Italian period, in the last four years of his life (1818–1822), during which he wrote his greatest poems — Julian and Maddalo, Prometheus Unbound, Adonais, Epipsychidion — as well as “A Defense of Poetry” and “A Philosophical View of Reform,” he had crafted an aesthetic that fused his poetic ambitions with his political goals, a quality that’s rare among poets and even rarer for poets under thirty.

If Shelley’s idealism got the better of him, it was only because, like many people of his age, he took into his bones what Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had recognized about the French Revolution: that it represented a decisive shift in human history, an unleashing of limitless potential that would place individuality, creativity, and reason at the center of the struggle for justice. The outcome of this transformation is glimpsed in Prometheus Unbound, after “the loathsome mask” of tyranny has fallen and man remains: “equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless.” Shelley’s work remains a testament to this dream, to the human demand for happiness, the maximization of individual freedom, and a life guided by the spirit of liberty.