P B Shelley – A Poet of the Earlier 19th Century (or Romantic Age —1800- 1850)

Updated March 14, 2022

Among all the renowned English Romantic poets, P B Shelley (1792-1822) is considered to be the most revolutionary. True to the tenets of his age, Shelley brought in not only new ideas and style to poetry but was also a vocal social and political commentator. Shelley’s body of work expresses revolutionary ideas and strong emotions. He wrote many iconic poems during his short life, including “Ozymandias (1818),Ode to the West Wind” (1820), “To a Skylark” (1820), “The Masque of Anarchy” (1819) and “The Witch of Atlas” (1820). Among his poems, the most noteworthy is “Prometheus Unbound” which was written during 1818-19 and published in 1820. Another important work by Shelley, where he presented his ideas on poetry, is ‘The Defence of Poetry’, a piece of prose written in 1820.

A Short Description of P. B. Shelley’s Biography-

Shelley was born on 4 August 1792 in West Sussex, England. His father was titled of lowest hereditary British Order (Baronet), but can use the prefix ‘Sir’. P.B. Shelley was the heir to a baronetcy. He was educated at Eton and Oxford but from a very early age showed strange or unusual character. He often visited graveyards, studied Alchemy, and read books of dreadful import. While he was at the university, he wrote several extraordinary pamphlets. Even, he was expelled from the Oxford University for one of the Pamphlet “The Necessity of Atheism”. He had already developed extreme desire on religion, politics, and morality generally, with a violence that was entirely theoretical. Although by nature he was among the most unselfish and amiable of mankind.

His opinions, as well as an early and unhappy marriage which he contracted, brought about a painful quarrel with his relatives. His father (Sir Timothy Shelley) calmed this very behavior of P.B. Shelley. Then, the poet took to the life that studied him best, passionately devoting himself to his writing, and wandering where the spirit led him. In 1816, his first wife (Harriet) committed suicide. After that he started live in Italy, the land he loved the most, with his second wife (Mary Wollstonecraft daughter of William Godwin).

The intoxication of Rome’s blue sky and the delicious unrestraint of his Italian existence set his genius blossoming into the rarest beauty. He died in a boating accident (in a sudden squall that overtook his yacht in the Gulf of Spezzia), when he was only thirty years old. He was burned on the beach where it was found. And his ashes were laid beside those of Keats in the Roman cemetery that he had nobly hymned. It is impossible to estimate the loss to literature that was caused by his early extinction. The crudeness of his earlier opinions was passing away, and his vision was gaining immeasurably in clearness and intensity.

His Poetry-

His earliest effort of any note is Queen Mab (1813). The poem is clearly immature; it is lengthy, and contains much of Shelley’s cruder atheism. It is written in the irregular unrhymed metre that was made popular by Robert Southey.

Afterwards “Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude” (1816) followed. It is a kind of spiritual autobiography, in which the chief character, a shadowy projection of Shelley’s own moods, travels through a wilderness in quest of the ideal beauty. The poem is long, rather obscure, and formless. It is remembered chiefly for its lyrical passages and striking, typically Shelleyan imagery. It is written in blank verse that shows Shelley’s growing skill as a poet. On later years, followed “Laon” and “Cythna” (1817), and afterward (1818) called The Revolt of Islam.

Then he left for Italy. The first fruits of his new life were apparent in Prometheus Unbound (1818-19, published 1820). This wonderful production is a combination of the Lyric and the drama.

In “The Cenci” (1819), Shelley started to write formal drama. In this play, he seems deliberately to have set upon himself the restraints that he defied in “Prometheus Unbound”. Many of the poet’s admirers look upon it as the masterpiece.

Other poems of the P.B. Shelley are Julian and Maddalo (1818), The Masque of Anarchy (1819, published 1832), The Witch of Atlas (1820, Published 1824) and Epipsychidion (1821). He wrote many iconic poems during his short life, including “Ozymandias (1818),Ode to the West Wind” (1820), “To a Skylark” (1820),

Features of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Poetry-

Lyrical Power-

His lyrical power is equal to the highest to be found in any language. It is now recognized to be one of the supreme gifts in literature, like the dramatic genius of Shakespeare. This gift is shown at its best when it expresses the highest emotional ecstasy, as in the lyrics ‘Prometheus Unbound’. He can also express the keenest note of depression and despair, as in the Lyric O World! O Life! O Time!

Choice of Subject-

Shelley’s choice of subject makes it convenient to divide his works into two broad groups, the one co0nsisting of his visionary, prophetic works such as Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude, The revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, and similar poems and other of his short lyrics. In almost all of the visionary poems, we see the Shelleyan hero, a rebel against tyranny and a leader in the struggle which is to bring about the ultimate happiness of humanity.

Descriptive Power-

His descriptive power at once strikes the imagination. The effect is instantaneous. His fancy played among wild and elemental things, but it gave them form and substance, as well as a radiant loveliness. His favorite device for this purpose is personification, of which the following is an excellent example:

For Winter came; the wind was his ship;

One choppy finger was on his lip;

He had torn the cataracts from the hills,

And they clanked at his girdle like manacles.


His style is perfectly attuned to his purpose. Like all the finest lyrical styles, it is simple, flexible, and passionate. It has a direct clarity, an easy, yet striking, lucidity and a purity of language which are peculiarly  Shelley’s own.


Shelley’s imitations are almost as plain as his great abilities. His continual rhapsodizing tends to become tedious and baffling. In his narrative, he is diffuse and argumentative; he lacks humour; and his political poetry is often violent and reasonable.

(Percy Bysshe Shelley) P B Shelley as a Romantic Poet

As a Romantic poet, Shelley’s style is passionate (full of emotion) yet strikingly simple. In moments of his highest emotional state, Shelley’s Lyrical powers become unparalleled, like the dramatic genius of Shakespeare. The poet is equally skilled in expressing cheerfulness and joy as he is in expressing depression and despair. He has chiefly written two types of poetry with respect to subject matter: the prophetic and lyric. Shelley has showcased in his poetry his voluminous reading on philosophical, scientific, mythological, religious and political subjects. Personification becomes Shelley’s favourite device while describing the wilder aspects of Nature. Though his narrative has argument and lacks humour, his language and clarity make him worthy of being called the best of best poets in the history of English literature. Even his harshest critics agree that as a poet, P B Shelley excelled in “craftsmanship”.

As a revolutionary Romantic poet, Shelley was a non-conformist. He openly expressed his anarchic views and idealism in his works. Shelley had started off on the lines of Wordsworth but soon found his views radically different from his own. Hence came, a sonnet “to Wordsworth” and a satire ‘peter Bell, The Third’. J.R. Watson, a 20th Century British author wrote in his book ‘English Poetry of the Romantic Period’ (1985) that Shelley’s Poetry “moves with great speed” and shows the characteristics of “a Changing sensibility confronting and ever-changing world”. According to him, Shelley was often elusive and difficult to understand because he frequently attempted to describe “that which is beyond description’. It is noted that in many poems, Shelley became a visionary, a leader trying to struggle for “the ultimate happiness of humanity”.

Shelley’s Love for Nature-

Shelley wrote many poems for displaying his love for Nature. In poems such as ‘The Cloud’, ‘To the Moon’, ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and ‘A Dream of the Unknown, Shelley personifies Nature in a living being of mighty power.

Shelley’s major poem ‘Ode to the West Wind’ showcases the remarkable qualities of his poetic ability. His revolutionary ideas and finest lyrical qualities come together to create a masterpiece of Romantic Poetry. In this poem, Shelley requests the powerful ‘West Wind to lend him its strength in order to spread his ideas across the World and bring about a monumental change in the social order. He hails the Wind as the “Destroyer and Preserver” and acknowledges its Force in revolutionizing the world. The poem is written in iambic pentameter with stanzas that express ‘the elemental rush of the wind itself’. Shelley concludes this beautiful lyric in his iconic style and some of the most famous words in English literature, ‘if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Shelley creates a similar revolutionary zeal in ‘To a Skylark’, another of his excellent lyrics.

Also, Shelley had a peculiar approach towards ‘Imagination’. According to P B Shelley, Poetry was never meant to talk about facts. Poetry is “the expression of Imagination”, according to Shelley. And it brings diverse things together in harmony as opposed to being separated in analysis. As a Romantic poet, Shelley does resort to melancholia in some of his poetry but always comes out as an optimist with words such as “Hope may vanish, but cannot die”.

Often deemed as unconventional and rebellious, Shelley enjoys a place among the best poets of all times for the beauty and vitality of his poems. In his ‘defence of poetry’, P B Shelley wrote that a poet ‘is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.” Shelley’s life and work exhibit a similar fate. He was not acknowledged for his skills during his lifetime. But, in later years, he became a “hero” of Romantic Poetry. He influenced important Victorian and Pre-Raphaelites poets such as Robert Browning and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Shelley’s style and thoughts were admired by significant literary figures of the later ages such as Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats.

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