Philosophy In The Life Of Percy Shelley

Essay, Research Paper

Philosophy in the Life of Percy Shelley

Thesis: There was no end to the apparent contradictions of personal philosophy versus popular culture, and what Shelley actually accomplished in his short life. Shelley was cognoscente of this contradiction, as can be seen in his Preface to The Revolt of Islam, and it continually shadowed his career.

I. Biographical information

A. Early inspiration, Godwin

B. Family

C. Scholastic Affairs

D. Adult life and Marriage

II. Beliefs

A. Shelley and general Romanticism

B. Marriage–a stray from personal philosophy

C. Darwinism

D. Divinity

Candace V. Coulter

English 201

Dr. Tichlear

October 10, 2000

Philosophy in the Life of Percy Shelley

The Romantic writers of the late 1700s and the early 1800s enjoyed a freedom in writing that is reminiscent of the freedom of some of the great Greek writers. Like the Greeks more than one thousand years earlier, the Romantic writers were able to enjoy such professions in the humanities due to the influx of technology in their respective societies. With the rise of the Greek Polis came efficiency in farming, shared labor, and specialized manufacturing on a more primitive scale. These innovations were key to the origin of philosophical writing for never before had so many humans had the luxury of time for contemplating life. The medical and mechanical advances, and increased importance of education for all classes in England during the 19th century replicated this revolution in many ways. England was developing into a network of urban areas. Wealthy business owners were able to support young poets and artist in their artistic endeavors. Without the support of the urban society, poets such as Shelley would have lived a life of labor and non-published thoughts of life. The irony occurs in that Romanic Poets such as Percy Shelley, who enjoyed the luxuries of modern life, would come to distain the very evolutionary events of society which enabled the time and freedom to contemplate. There was no end to the apparent contradictions of personal philosophy versus popular culture, and what Shelley actually accomplished in his short life. Shelley was cognoscente of this contradiction, as can be seen in his Preface to The Revolt of Islam, and it continually shadowed his career.

I aspire to be something better. The circumstances of my accidental

education have been favorable to this ambition.

An early inspiration to Shelley’s thoughts was William Godwin. The effects of Godwin’s writings upon Shelley would extend beyond his high school years. The book Political Justice entranced Shelley. The idea of a world dominated by philosophy rather than religion can be seen in Shelley’s own ideals of Millennialism. Shelley accepted enthusiastically Godwin’s promotion of free love instead of the cursed institution of marriage.

Shelley’s own family did not understand him from the beginning. Shelley had expected an inheritance from his father, but upon Shelley’s expulsion from Oxford his father disinherited him. Shelley’s mother discouraged his reading of books as well as she felt that the reading added to his madness (Karunaratne, 29). Shelly’s grandfather did provide a sum of money for him, but Shelley had an awkward appreciation for the money. Shelley, though he had no real income, would share whatever money he had with his fellow thinkers.

As can be gathered from his family’s reaction, Shelley had a rather precocious start to philosophical thinking. “The Mad Shelley” would constantly rebel against what was expected of him at school. From “. . .raising the devil” to his shabby care of his fine clothing, Shelley was known as a trouble maker. He firmly believed that rules and regulations had been made to oppress students. Shelley was ultimately no longer welcomed in the halls of Oxford upon writing the essay “The Necessity of Atheism.”

The Romantic literary period is normally associated with flowery and imaginative poetry. It is generally associated with symbolic representations in nature. “Nineteenth century poets shared a belief in the possibility of reaching absolute truth” (Colville, 3). Shelley’s won thoughts on truth include: “True knowledge leads to love.” Shelley, however, provides a unique twist to Romanticism with his preoccupation with myth, atheism, and concern with politics. Shelley had great concern for social standards in his day and time, and he closely combined these concerns with the current physical scientific advances. Romantics, often credited as Laudites, showed a strange appreciation for scientific advances.

Among the first salient contradictions of Shelley’s confessed philosophy and his actions was his marriage to Harriet Westbrook. Despite his disbelief in the institution of marriage, Shelley married Westbrook in order to free her from the expectations of her father. The couple enjoyed a small salary from the tavern-keeper, Mr. Westbrook. Harriet Westbrook never understood her husband though, and she ultimately took her own life. Shelley’s first marriage was only the beginning of the twisted tale. During his marriage to Westbrook, Shelley decided to pursue an interaction with Godwin, who had inspired much of his thought. Godwin accepted an interview with Shelley. It seemed, however, that Shelley was not the only philosopher whose claims and actions did not coincide. Even Godwin, whom Shelley held in high esteem, was living a less than desirable home life with several children of several marriages! Shelley fell in love with one of Godwin’s daughters, Mary Wollstonecraft. Once again abandoning his disbelief in marriage, Shelley and Wollstonecraft eloped. Not being susceptible to other social expectations, Shelley never formally divorced his first wife and the three people even made a tragic attempt to live together! It is not known how Shelley justified his marriages in his own mind. It is proof however that as much as Shelley had developed his own ideal social world, he was subject to the reality of the society that surrounded him.

“Shelley never abandoned the hope that an expansion of physical knowledge–combined with refinement of moral sensibility–was a precondition of progressive civilization.” (Kipperman, 409). Shelley embraced the ideas Darwinism both in physical science and in the progress of the emotional world. Central to his ideas of millennialism, Shelley hoped believed that the authority of our knowledge is the revelation that the universe will appear as civilized to us as we make ourselves to be. It is difficult to understand Shelley’s feelings of science, as again he appears to contradict himself in the Defense of Poetry. In the Defense of Poetry, Shelley subordinates science to the guidance of imagination and moral leadership. His ideas of evolution rarely stray from those of Darwin, however. “Shelley interpreted universal “forces” as continuous in some way with the human, as ‘universal’ across the Organic, inorganic, and the ideal” (Kipperman, 411).

It (the poem) is a succession of pictures illustrating the growth

And progress of individual mind aspiring after excellence and

Devoted to the love of mankind.

–from the preface to The Revolt of Islam–

In this Shelley did not see the soul as a free acting entity, but rather a non-human power. Reading this one may think that Shelley was a sort of optimist. However the exact opposite is truer. Shelley became skeptical that dominant causes in being could proceed as ideal or material. Shelley’s idealism served only in how he saw the human mind as the bounds of veracity that can be known. “Shelley . . .[continued] to value natural science both for it’s power to explain the real forces (whether thought of as ideal or material) that act upon us and to suggest ways to alter their courses and outcomes” (Kipperman, 413). But as stated earlier, Shelley would come to criticize the path of progression with lead him to the freedom of thought. Shelly had select reservations on technical culture and the possibility which ensued it in the redefining the leading social powers in everyday life.

Again in the preface to The Revolt of Islam Shelley exposed his thoughts of divine power. In the preface he attacks the “erroneous and degrading idea which men have conceived a Supreme Being” but never attacks the Supreme Being itself. In The Defense of Poetry Shelley again talks of divine power and of the poet’s role in discussing it.

We are aware of evanescent visitations of thought and feeling . . . elevating and delighting beyond all expressions . . . It is as it were the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own . . . Poetry redeems from decay the visitation of the divinity in man.

It can be noted in many of Shelley’s works that he adored ancient Greece. “. . .he worshiped the Golden Age of Greece of the past, and persuaded himself the would be a Golden Age of Greece in the future” (Gingerrich, 227). The parallels of the Golden Age of Greece with those of the time of Romanticism are numerous. Shelley’s views of science, to which he owed much of his bittersweet pleasures in life, can be seen as a combination of approval and fear. Shelley’s struggles with living a life of his own principles proved to be an arduous and life-taking task. Unlike his willingness to acquiesce in terms of marriage, Shelley held fast to his ominous belief of swimming. “Swimming. . .[is] a foolish precaution against death.” Shelley later died at the early age of 29 as a result of drowning after his sailboat capsized.

Arnold, Mathew. Essays in Criticism. Volume 2. London: Macmillan and Co., 1894. 205-252.

Colvile, Derek. Victorian Poetry and the Romantic Religion. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1970. 34-42.

Gingerich, Solomon. Essays in Romantic Poets. New York: Octagon Books, 1969. 195-242.

Isomaki, Richard. “Interpretation and Value in ‘Mont Blanc’ and ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” Studies in Romanticism. Volume 30 n1 (1991): 57-69.

Karunaretne, R. S. “A Rebel with a Mad Streak.” Colombo, Sri Lanka: Sunday Observer. August 8, 1999. 29.

Kipperman, Mark. “Coleridge, Shelley, Davy, and Science’s Millennium.” Criticism. Volume 40 n3 (1998): 409-437.

Roberts, Hugh. “Shelly Among the Post-Kantians.” Studies in Romanticism. Volume 35 n2 (1996): 295-329.

Shelley, Percy. Selected poems found in The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Volume 2, 7Th edition (2000): 698-798.


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