6. Percy Bysshe Shelley

6. Percy Bysshe Shelley

1. Biography

Born in Sussex in 1792, Percy Bysshe Shelley was the eldest son of wealthy, conservative Member of Parliament and heir a considerable fortune. 

In 1810 he was expelled from Oxford University because of his radical pamphlet ‘The Necessity of Atheism’ in which he challenged the existence of God. 

At the age of 19 he married Harriet Westbrooke and they had two children. Shelley’s contempt for conventional forms of religion and politics was matched by an interest in the occult sciences and in scientific experiments. He expressed his philosophy of life in the poem ‘Queen Mab’ (1813). 

When Shelley and his wife came back to England, they separated. After he met the daughter of William Godwin, they went together in Switzerland and they met Byron. None of their 3 children survived and her wife, Mary, started drew up her novel ‘Frankenstein’. Meanwhile Percy wrote the revolutionary poem ‘The Revolt of Islam’, he expressed his conviction that only love could deliver men from any social claims. Shelley used the Gothic symbol of the wanderer to explain his vision of history. 

In 1818 the Shelleys left England for good and went to live in Italy during which time much of his best work was written:

  • Ode to the West Wind, written in 1819; To a Skylark, written in 1820;
  • The Cenci (1819) a verse tragedy; Prometheus Unbound (1820), a lyrical drama dealing with the theme of intellectual rebellion, the desire for spiritual liberty and the belief that evil would be overcome by the power of love;
  • Adonais (1821), an elegy written in honor of John Keats; 
  • Epipsychidion (1821), a long poem inspired to the poet by his platonic love for a beautiful Italian girl;
  • A Defense of poetry (1821), an unfinished essay concerning the importance of poetry.

In 1822 Shelley drowned during a storm and died. 

2. The poet of freedom and love

All works by Shelley show his restless spirit, his refusal of social conventions, political oppression, any form of tyranny, and his faith in a better future. He nevertheless remains a poet of great conviction and powerful musicality. 

Shelley believed strongly in the principles of freedom and love. Through love he believed man could overcome any political, moral and social constraints. 

3. The role of imagination 

Shelley’s belief in nature and the function of poetry is expressed in his essay ‘A Defense of Poetry’

He exalted the defense of poetry as the expression of imagination and understood it as revolutionary creativity, meant changing the reality of the material world. 

The poet is bound to suffer and isolates himself from the rest of the world projecting himself into a better future and hope.

4. The poet’s task

The poet of Shelley is a prophet and a Titan challenging the cosmos; his task is to reach an ideal world where freedom, love and beauty are delivered from their enemies (tyranny, destruction, alienation).

5. Nature

Shelley describes nature like a beautiful veil hides the eternal truth of the Divine Spirit. It provides him with images (wind, clouds, symbols) that create his cosmic schemes. 

Nature represents the refuge from the disappointment and injustice of the ordinary world and his melancholy dreams and of his hopes for a better future. 

6. Style

Shelley’s verse covers a wide range of metric and stanzaic forms. 

He used traditional verses like Spenserian stanza, couplet, blank verse and Dante’s terza rima. He moved from the political ballad to the classical elegy. 

He is best remembered for his short lyric poetry.

7. Ode to the West Wind (1819)

Percy Bysshe Shelley composed this ode to celebrate the majesty and the power of the west wind, in 1819. He was in touch with nature near Florence.

It begins with the poet directly addressing the west wind. In other words, he is treating it as a force of death and decay. However, he welcomes the wind despite what it brings. It is because the poet believes that death and decay are necessary for transformation and regeneration. 

Thus, this wind will ultimately bring rejuvenation and rebirth. Further, in Ode to the West Wind the poet is promoting this rebirth through his poem. He wishes to see the same reform in society. That is to say, in both political and poetic means for a better future of society as a whole.

Ode to the west wind summary is a brief version of the poem written by the renowned English Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1819. 

The poet wrote this poem in the woods outside Florence in Italy during Autumn.


The poem begins with the poet appealing to the wild west wind of autumn. He notices how the wind is scattering the dead leaves and spreading the seeds. This will result in their nurturing in the season of Spring.

Thus, the poet labels the wind as a destroyer as well as a preserver. He calls for it to hear him by describing how the wind is responsible for stirring up violent storms. While he is calling out for its attention he keeps describing it further.

He mentions the unusual exploits of the wind and how it is responsible for waves in the big oceans and seas like the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Once again, the poet calls out to the wind so it hears his appeal.

Ode to the west wind explains how the poet recalls his lovely relationship with the west wind in his youth. He desires to be a dead leaf or swift cloud so the west wind would carry him thereby feeling its strength.

At last, the poet appeals to the west wind to turn him into a lyre. This way, his words can be scattered all over the world like a dead leaf for everyone through the wind. Moreover, he also asks the wind to become him.

At last, he concludes by asking the question that if winter will arrive, the spring will also not be far behind. Thus, he states a metaphor for birth and death. It means that death and decay do not mean the end but rebirth.

In other words, he believes winter and spring won’t be able to sail on the same boat because both are opposite of each other. In addition, he states that there is nothing new in him decaying as it is inevitable.


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