The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Various
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I thoroughly enjoyed working through the three volumes of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetical works, as edited posthumously by his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. This was the second edition, published in 1853. I have a thirst for the Romantic period and Shelley has been called one of the greats. Having read a little bit of William Blake and a great deal of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats, I think I’d say Shelley was definitely one of the greater second generation Romantics. I currently prefer first generation poets Coleridge and Blake. When reading Shelley and his contemporaries Keats & Lord Byron, I found it hard to sustain my momentum through several of their works. Perhaps it was just me, and there is certainly a large amount of Shelley’s work that I truly enjoyed. I will surely return to these volumes again and again.
I liked Queen Mab (1813) and was impressed that he wrote it when he was so young. My edition only contained the first two cantos, so I had to read the rest from a Project Gutenberg edition. My edited version was due to self-censorship to avoid prosecution for blasphemous libel for Shelley’s atheistic passages and criticisms of organized religion. The long poem covers many topics, including business greed, religious shams and the guile of kings and leaders. Queen Mab still resonates 201 years later.
Ozymandias (1818) is one of my favorite Shelley pieces and one that I hope someday to commit to memory. It so cleanly, quickly and incisively gets its point across. It conveys how small we are and how fleeting our glory and power are when compared against the expanse of time.
I really enjoyed the Cenci (1819), based on a true story from the end of the 16th century. It was more direct writing and easier to read than Prometheus Unbound (1820) or Hellas (1822). Those two felt unnecessarily complicated and overwritten. The Revolt of Islam (1817) was interesting but what I took most from it was Shelley’s preface where he notes that many writers of his day were writing for contemporary critics, not the ages or freely (1: 67). He said that was the problem of his age, and something I think people still fall prey to today.
The Masque of Anarchy (1819) touches on nonviolent resistance: “With folded arms and steady eyes / And little fear, and less surprise, / Look upon them as they slay, / Till their rage has died away” (stanza 86, 2: 373). Powerful words now, I can’t imagine how new and powerful they were when first published.
To a Skylark (1820) wowed me, especially at the end. I hope, like Shelley, that my writing will one day learn from the skylark:
“Better than all measures
Of delightful sound
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!
Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow,
The world would listen then,
As I am listening now.” (stanzas XX-XXI; 3: 26)
Adonais (1821) is a beautiful elegy for John Keats, after his tragic death at just 24. Adonais is Shelley at his best. He conveys honor, love and regret on the death of his contemporary. I was touched by his plea: “Awake him not! Surely he takes his fill / Of deep and liquid rest, forgetful of all ill” (Stanza 7; 3: 127)
Finally, Shelley and I seem to approach our reading time in similar fashion: “How sweet it is to sit and read the tales / Of mighty poets, and to hear the while / Sweet music, which when the attention fails / Fills the dim pause–“ Fragments (stanza XIV; 3: 244).