How does Shelley’s treatment of nature differ from that of the earlier Romantic poets? What connections does he make between nature and art, and how does he illustrate those connections?
Whereas older Romantic poets looked at nature as a realm of communion with pure existence and with a truth preceding human experience, the later Romantics looked at nature primarily as a realm of overwhelming beauty and aesthetic pleasure. While Wordsworth and Coleridge often write about nature in itself, Shelley tends to invoke nature as a sort of supreme metaphor for beauty, creativity, and expression. This means that most of Shelley’s poems about art rely on metaphors of nature as their means of expression: the West Wind in “Ode to the West Wind” becomes a symbol of the poetic faculty spreading Shelley’s words like leaves among mankind, and the skylark in “To a Skylark” becomes a symbol of the purest, most joyful, and most inspired creative impulse. The skylark is not a bird, it is a “poet hidden.”
How and why does Shelley believe poetry to be an instrument of moral good? What impact does this belief have on his poems, if any?
As Shelley explains in his essay A Defence of Poetry, he believes that poetry expands and nurtures the imagination, and that the imagination enables sympathy, and that sympathy, or an understanding of another human being’s situation, is the basis of moral behavior. His belief that poetry can contribute to the moral and social improvement of mankind impacts his poems in several ways. Shelley writes his poems in fulfillment of the responsibility to exercise the imagination and provide it with beauty and pleasure; thus his poems become whimsically imaginative in content and manner. The sense of this “responsibility” also adds urgency to Shelley’s poetic product, and makes the widespread reading of the poems a central and explicit goal: thus Shelley’s speaker makes declarations such as those in “Ode to the West Wind” and “To a Skylark”, expressing his desire that his words will spread amongst humanity.
Many of Shelley’s poems include a climactic moment, an instant when the poet’s feelings overwhelm him and overwhelm his poem. What are some of these moments? How do they relate to the poems as wholes? How are they typical of the poetic personality Shelley brings to his writing?
The most obvious example of such a climactic moment is the speaker’s collapse at the beginning of the third stanza of “The Indian Serenade”; one might also include the poet’s cry “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” in “Ode to the West Wind,” and “To a Skylark” as accounts of such moments sustained for an entire poem and distilled from all feelings of lesser intensity. These moments show both the power of the outside world to affect Shelley’s inner feelings, and the power of these feelings in and of themselves—Shelley responded very intensely to the world, and in his poems the world is a place to which one can respond only intensely.
4. Think about Shelley’s use of the sonnet form in “England in 1819” and “Ozymandias.” How does he shape the form to his own purposes? How does his use of the sonnet form break from the established traditions of the early 1800s?
5. Shelley was a political radical who never shied away from expressing his opinions about oppression and injustice—he was expelled from Oxford in 1811 for applying his radicalism to religion and arguing for the necessity of atheism. What do we learn about Shelley’s ideal vision of the human condition, as based on his political poems? With particular attention to “Ode to the West Wind,” how might a sense of his social hopes emerge from even a non-political poem?
6. In some ways Shelley is a creature of contradictions: he was an atheist who wrote hymns, a scandalous and controversial figure who argued for ethical behavior, an educated aristocrat who argued for the liberation of humankind, and a sensuous Romantic poet whose fondest hope was that his poems would exert a moral influence over the human imagination. How can one resolve these contradictions? (Are they even resolvable?) How do they manifest themselves in his poetry?
7. Shelley lived a fascinating and turbulent life among fascinating and turbulent people, from Lord Byron, the most famous, controversial, and popular poet of the era, to his wife Mary, the author of Frankenstein. How does a knowledge of Shelley’s biography (and early death) affect your appreciation of his poetry? Or does it affect it at all? Is it necessary to know about Shelley’s life and times in order to fully understand the poetry?