Percy Bysshe Shelley as a Rebel Poet. A short essay

Essay, 2020

8 Pages


Shelley as a Rebel Poet

“What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion. A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. What does he mean by saying "no"?”1

Shelley is considered to be one of the most radical writers of the English poetic tradition. Although, he was born in aristocratic political family and had known the perspective of that point, as a human being he had suffered at the hands of the others’ which had incarnated his inner eyes. As a visionary, he had easily noticed the contemporary injustice of the society, the wrongs, oppression and possession of the authority. All these had firmly provoked Shelley. Therefore, he had refused to abide by the society, but he had not relinquished the society, he had embraced it as a dear friend and set to rehabilitate it. Shelley recurrently criticized and attacked the contemporary Christian Church, legal and political systems including the royal family with his literary power. However, Shelley comes from a generation of radical, unconventional ideas and period of political turmoil; such phenomena would influence him in various spheres of his life. The people Shelley closely interacted with during the span of his ideological evolvement and the unusual, unfavorable incidents he faced in different parts of his life gradually prepared him to venture forth as a rebel Poet.

There were various causes that were responsible to turn Shelley into a rebellious yet one of the greatest of poets. Firstly, there are numerous incidents in Shelley’s early life which exemplify him as a rebellious person. Although he had a very idyllic childhood in his birthplace in Horsham, Sussex, not long after he entered in Syon House Academy, he was bullied and eventually tried resisting "indulging in imaginative escapism and literary pranks"2 which indicates how his path of life was channeling into a certain direction by the impact of such incidents. He was pushed out from his fellow boys with bullies, which made him to busy his mind with other interests like science like "electricity, astronomy, and chemistry"3 rather than spending time with fellow boys. This was the initial trigger of his rebellious nature. At Eton College, Shelley’s days turned out the same; he was bullied by his college fellows who taunted him with appellations such as “Mad Shelley” and “Shelley the atheist”4, such aggravated situations were clearly aligned with his venturing forth to controversial thinking in early life. Secondly, many individual appeared to influence Shelley from his early life until his death. Shelley met Dr. James Lind, a physician who influenced him with his knowledge and free spirit. When Shelley entered Oxford, he soon met Thomas Jefferson Hogg with whom he became spontaneous friend. Thomas Hogg was one of the first people to stimulate Shelley’s ideas. Soon after, Shelley wrote his first radical pamphlet, a rebellious idea against religion; The Necessity of Atheism.

After Shelley and Hogg published The Necessity of Atheism (1811) they were expelled from Oxford, both of them could probably have been reinstated with the intervention of Shelley’s father, but they would have had to disavow the pamphlet and declare themselves Christians but he was intransigent to compromise and thus early in his life Shelley demonstrated his idealism by his willingness to sacrifice comfort and security rather than compromise his principles or beliefs5 (qtd. in Biography of Shelly)

This is a significant instance which defines that rebellion was in Shelley’s innate character and it was very rapid and strong for which he had even defied his own family and his opportunity to become an Oxford Graduate. Also, Shelley met William Godwin in 1812, who was another major influence in his life. He was Shelley’s hero of political idealism by whom he was influenced so much to act upon as a reformer of politics. During Shelley’s stay in Italy, he metGeorge William Tighe who “inspired the poet with a new-found sense of radicalism”.6 Apart from this, other thinkers like Rousseau influenced him in political field. Therefore, his friends and acquaintances around his life made a great deal of major impression upon him to be a rebel of society. Lastly, social and political turmoil as well as personal unfavorable incidents had a firm hold on his rebellious life. Despite the grotesque French revolution was an initial part of Romantic Movement, Shelley inherently confronted some of its views as Wordsworth influenced him. As Shelley was gradually marching forward with his ideology, he saw the violent effect of Napoleonic war and this had impacted him to be a rebelled reformer of the society. He was an active poet when USA declared war on England, which led the country’s economy to be reformed as the expanses of war had increased and trade between USA and England had stopped. Shelley was against these oppressive reforms and so he had written The Devil’s Walk: a Ballad in which he criticized the King, and the Church of England. Apart from this, in his early life he was tortured mentally and physically and couldn’t live in open freedom while he was a student. He was compelled to leave Oxford for his opinion on religion. His grandfather “tried to starve him into submission”7 because of marrying Harriet Westbrook, hence he could not have a financial independence. All these deforms that he encountered in his life channeled him to rebel against the conventional order.

Shelley faced numerous adverse consequences for his rebellion, but he had succeeded to embed his ideology of better society into the world. After he left Eton College, the revolutionary inside him was already germinating. At Oxford, he had taken his first step to act upon his rebellious character by writing The Necessity of Atheism(1811), “pamphlet which ended Shelley’s academical career”8, for which he and his friend Thomas Hogg had been expelled from Oxford, a woeful consequence which he had accepted and retained his opinion and had refused to submit to his family and Christian faith. This was the root of this rebellious poet. After Shelley and Harriet Westbrook had run to Ireland, he had written pamphlets and distributed them to encourage the political reform. During the distribution of Shelley’s subversive pamphlets, he faced the force of law.

On August 19th, 1812, Shelley’s servant Daniel Healey was arrested and convicted of dispersing printed papers without the printer’s name affixed. The situation was a dangerous one for Shelley and Mr. Syle…Shelley’s family saved him from prosecution (qtd. in Vaughan 28)9

Although, Shelley had been apprehensive about this incident, he had fled Ireland and settled in Wales possessing firmness to go forward with his movements. Since his early days, he was detached from his family by the bitter disapproval of his father for his rebellious acts. Moreover, Shelley was “shunned by the Godwins and most other friends”10 for he had eloped with his daughter Mary Godwin to Switzerland, the woman who had aided Shelley in his career until his death. On the other hand, though Shelley’s poetic rebellious life had a limited effect during his lifetime, his ideology of revolution had overlong outcome to the society. The 19th century Victorian novelists such as George Eliot, Thomas Hardy adopted Shelley’s ideology in their work and spread them for the reformation of society. Shelley influenced socialism; “Marx himself admired Shelley, and…looked back upon him as a kind of patron saint of their movement”11, and Marx’s philosophical effect is still alive in our modern society and this bears and bright mark of Shelley’s ideological discreetness. In addition, Shelley’s widespread influence in modern society was conveyed by Leo Tolstoy; “Shelley’s early—perhaps first—writings on nonviolent resistance influencedLeo Tolstoy,whose writings on the subject in turn influencedMahatma Gandhi, and through himMartin Luther King Jr.and others practicingnonviolenceduring the Americancivil rights movement”,12 so, this is a patent living example of how Shelley’s rebellious efforts against society reached from negligence to serious social salvation. Moreover, other 20th century philosophers and poets were highly interested in Shelley, for instance Bertrand Russell, W. B. Yeats, Henry David Thoreau and more. Hence, the consequence of Shelley’s rebellious acts and principles had widespread growth and fruition through the passage of time and it is still visible in our modern society.

Shelley’s poignant poems had overtly criticized and attacked the society and its institutions, but he was also a prose writer and his radical prose and essays were devoted to social and political reformation. Since his early age, Shelley was forging his beliefs apart from his fellows. At that time, he was reading Godwin’s Political Justice and living in his perceived utopia, he pondered how he could reach and destroy the disciplines which were attacking his freedom. As he found out how he could use his literary power to shake society with his voice, he started writing against the Napoleonic wars:

“A brighter morn awaits the human day,… When poverty and wealth, the thirst of fame, The fear of infamy, disease and woe, War with its million horrors and fierce hell, Shall live but in the memory of time.”13

Here, Shelley reflects his idea of utopia, devastated by the miseries of the society but his hopeful tone was like a prophecy. Soon, Napoleon was defeated but Shelley’s idea of a free equal society had to pass a long way until it came to light. Additionally, Queen Mab was primary instance of how Shelley used his poems to convey radical political ideas. Queen Mab also influenced the later philosophers of 18th century to beget a new socio-economic structure. Later on, Shelley had written one of his true rebellious works, The Revolt of Islam about the impatient wrath “at all the oppressions which are done under the sun”14 as he wrote in the preface. He tried to invoke peoples to the idea of revolution depicting how youth revolutionize against authoritarian ruler:

“To guard some other victim – so I drew My knife, and with one impulse, suddenly All unaware three of their number slew, And grasped a fourth by the throat, and with loud cry My Countrymen invoked to death or liberty!”15


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Percy Bysshe Shelley as a Rebel Poet. A short essay
University of Dhaka
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Shelly, rebel poet, romanticism, romantic era, English, literature, essay, literary essay, Literary critique percy shelley
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Mehedi Ahmed (Author), 2020, Percy Bysshe Shelley as a Rebel Poet. A short essay, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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