By Brett Forester

Writing but one fine, enduring poem is a remarkable achievement. Writing a book of great poems is an even rarer triumph. Yet in 1820, British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (born August 4, 1792 – died July 8, 1822) published just such a book: Prometheus Unbound, with Other Poems, a collection of 10 poems of varying length and form, which ought to be ranked among the best ever made by an English poet. These 10 poems are arguably Shelley’s finest. Shelley was 28 years old and at the height of his poetic powers. His style reached the apogee of maturity, technical skill, and imaginativeness. Shelley scholar Desmond King-Hele wrote that “the other poems alone would have been enough to make the book famous.” These other poems include Shelley’s most anthologized and best known works: “Ode to Liberty,” “Ode to the West Wind,” “To a Skylark,” among others. Combined with the innovative and ambitious larger work “Prometheus Unbound,” the poems offer the reader a rarely matched poetic magnum opus: an array of metrical styles, forms, and themes. Prometheus Unbound, with Other Poems is Shelley’s greatest work and it ought to be rediscovered. It deserves a spot on every poetry’s lover’s bookshelf.

With Byron and Keats, Shelley belonged to the second generation of Romantic poets who carried on the poetic traditions which Wordsworth and Coleridge began. Shelley openly rebelled against authority. Although his father was a career politician and aristocrat, early in his life Percy married below his class and shirked filial responsibility to the family name.  He opposed monarchism throughout his life and constantly derogated organized religion. He was an ardent idealist with a libertarian spirit. He devoted most of his verse to Enlightenment themes of reason, freedom, and democracy. His tumultuous life ended abruptly when, at the young age of 30, he drowned after his boat sank in Italy. Due to Italian laws of the era, Shelley had to be cremated on the beach. But the legend goes that Mary Shelley and Byron preserved the poet’s undecaying heart as a symbol. “All of Shelley was consumed except his heart, which would not take the flame, and is now preserved in spirits of wine” wrote Byron to Thomas Moore.

Shelley’s poetry was rejected during his life, except by his friends and acquaintances. Contemporary reviewers found the non-didactic themes in Shelley too abstract. They found the political sentiments unpalatable and even seditious. One reviewer in 1821 called this book “a mere jumble of words and heterogeneous ideas, connected by slight and accidental associations, among which it is impossible to distinguish the principal object from the accessory.” While Shelley’s work served almost as holy writ for Browning and George Bernard Shaw, other writers have criticized it harshly. T.S Eliot famously said that he found the ideas in Shelley “repellant.” Others thought Shelley’s conduct tarnished his skilled verse. Despite its polarizing content, Shelley’s work presents the reader with some of the English language’s most imaginative and technically skillful poetry ever written.

The titular poem “Prometheus Unbound” takes up the majority of the collection. Shelly called it a “lyrical drama in 4 acts.” Prometheus was the Greek Titan who, Hesiod says, stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humanity. In punishment Zeus chained Prometheus to a mountain and ordered an eagle every day to devour Prometheus’s regenerating organs. The poem is Shelley’s allegorical expression of humankind’s march to liberty. His controversial political sentiments are couched in symbol and myth. Prometheus enchained by Zeus represents the bondage of humankind, man’s slavery to overly rigid traditions of the past, as seen in the below excerpt from Prometheus Unbound:

The crawling glaciers pierce me with the spears
Of their moon-freezing crystals, the bright chains
Eat with their burning cold into my bones.
Heaven’s wingèd hound, polluting from thy lips
His beak in poison not his own, tears up
My heart; and shapeless sights come wandering by,
The ghastly people of the realm of dream,
Mocking me: and the Earthquake-fiends are charged
To wrench the rivets from my quivering wounds
When the rocks split and close again behind:
While from their loud abysses howling throng
The genii of the storm, urging the rage
Of whirlwind, and afflict me with keen hail.
And yet to me welcome is day and night,
Whether one breaks the hoar frost of the morn,
Or starry, dim, and slow, the other climbs
The leaden-coloured east; for then they lead
The wingless, crawling hours, one among whom
— As some dark Priest hales the reluctant victim —
Shall drag thee, cruel King, to kiss the blood
From these pale feet, which then might trample thee
If they disdained not such a prostrate slave.
Disdain! Ah no! I pity thee. What ruin
Will hunt thee undefended through wide Heaven!

Click here for all of Shelley’s poetical works in their entirety

We encounter a naturalistic worldview represented by lurid descriptions of earthquakes, glaciers, mountains, and crystals. We see the unjustness of tyranny. There is also an intricate moral vision interwoven through this majestic, rich verse. Prometheus no longer hates Zeus, his slaver and oppressor. He finds solace. Instead, the powerless Titan, yearning to be free, in his slavery learns to pity his captor. He comes to a moral realization that those who do ill destroy themselves. Hate can only harm one’s own soul. It is “the wingless crawling hours,” that will destroy Zeus. It is only a matter of time till tyranny of monarchism and organized religion give way to human liberty. The middle acts detail, alternating between lyric and blank verse, Prometheus’s triumph. As we reach the final act, Earth and Moon sing of man’s newfound powers:

The Moon.
Brother mine, calm wanderer,
Happy globe of land and air,
Some Spirit is darted like a beam from thee,
Which penetrates my frozen frame,
And passes with the warmth of flame,
With love, and odour, and deep melody
Through me, through me!

The Earth.
Ha! ha! the caverns of my hollow mountains,
My cloven fire-crags, sound-exulting fountains
Laugh with a vast and inextinguishable laughter.
The oceans, and the deserts, and the abysses,
And the deep air’s unmeasured wildernesses,
Answer from all their clouds and billows, echoing after.

All the ills of life leave humanity as they begin to live in the purest form of happiness and love. “Prometheus Unbound” in stunningly skillful verse combines mythic allegory, political idealism, Romantic naturalism, and Enlightenment rationalism. “Prometheus Unbound” is a challenging, yet rewarding poem.

After the serious, abstractness of Prometheus, “The Sensitive Plant” comes after as a relief. This poem deals with the most Romantic of subjects: flowers.

The Sensitive Plant (Excerpt)

The snowdrop, and then the violet,
Arose from the ground with warm rain wet,
And their breath was mixed with fresh odour, sent
From the turf, like the voice and the instrument.

Then the pied wind-flowers and the tulip tall,
And narcissi, the fairest among them all,
Who gaze on their eyes in the stream’s recess,
Till they die of their own dear loveliness;

And the Naiad-like lily of the vale,
Whom youth makes so fair and passion so pale
That the light of its tremulous bells is seen
Through their pavilions of tender green;

And the hyacinth purple, and white, and blue,
Which flung from its bells a sweet peal anew
Of music so delicate, soft, and intense,
It was felt like an odour within the sense;

And the rose like a nymph to the bath addressed,
Which unveiled the depth of her glowing breast,
Till, fold after fold, to the fainting air
The soul of her beauty and love lay bare:

And the wand-like lily, which lifted up,
As a Maenad, its moonlight-coloured cup,
Till the fiery star, which is its eye,
Gazed through clear dew on the tender sky;

And the jessamine faint, and the sweet tuberose,
The sweetest flower for scent that blows;
And all rare blossoms from every clime
Grew in that garden in perfect prime.

The poem describes a paradisal garden, heavily indebted to Milton’s description of the Garden of Eden in Book 4 of Paradise Lost. The poem is written in irregular anapestic tetrameters, meaning that each line contains usually only 4 stressed syllables and between 9 and 12 total syllables. Regular iambic pentameter has 5 stresses among 10 total syllables. The anapestic meter gives the poem a rolling, childlike innocence. However, beneath this metrical façade, the poem offers a powerful contemplation about impermanence and the nature of beauty in the world. The Sensitive Plant is a mimosa. It has no densely grouped ornamentation like the hyacinths, lilies, and jessamine. Yet the Sensitive Plant has a different kind of beauty, an inner beauty, more powerful than mere pleasant appearance because it loves more than all the other plants. Yet the poem takes a morose turn. The Sensitive Plant dies after winter, being an annual plant. The mandrakes and nettles take over, while the Sensitive Plant lies “a leafless wreck.” Shelley concludes, however, that the Sensitive Plant’s apparent death is only that – an appearance. In this naturalistic philosophy, Shelley decides that love and beauty never die. Our limited senses are unable to perceive the reality of nature:

For love, and beauty, and delight,
There is no death nor change: their might
Exceeds our organs, which endure
No light, being themselves obscure.

“Ode to the West Wind” is the 5th poem in the collection, coming right at the midpoint. The poem also consists of 5 terza rima sonnets, adapted from the meter used by Dante in The Divine Comedy. Each sonnet also deals thematically with one of nature’s 5 elements commingling with the others: earth, fire, air, water, and, according to Aristotle, ether. Shelley, in these 5 sculpted sonnets, arguably, gives British Romanticism’s main themes their supreme expression.

Ode to the West Wind (Excerpt)

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull’d by the coil of his crystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh hear!

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem’d a vision; I would ne’er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

King-Hele calls these stanzas metrically “the most fully orchestrated of Shelley’s poems.” The technical skill of the poem is evident. Shelley handles Dante’s terza rima, which can sound clunky in English, with incomparable dexterity. He sacrifices none of his thematic concerns or his characteristic diction. The enjambment and the unusual pauses combine with the images, mood, and tone making for a unique and moving prosody. The poem expresses the poet’s simultaneous despair of decay and hope for rejuvenation as he seeks to mimic, in his songs, the untameable, haughty liberty of the West Wind. Shelley sings nature’s subtle, cyclic unity: the commingling ocean, forest, wind, and spirit. Even though the West Wind brings wintry death, the poet knows the renewal of spring must come too.

After “Ode to the West Wind” comes “The Cloud,” a delightful nephological poem sang by a cloud. Then comes “To a Skylark,” Shelley’s most anthologized and most well known poem. Unlike the other poems, “Skylark” is easy to understand and full of innocent emotion. The diction is simplified. The meter is playful. There are no abstract allusions to politics, philosophy, and science. Instead, the Skylark, which sings so high up it can’t be seen, symbolizes the spontaneous beauty of poetic inspiration:

Ode to a Skylark (Excerpt)

Teach us, sprite or bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.

Chorus hymeneal
Or triumphal chaunt
Matched with thine would be all
But an empty vaunt,
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.

What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?

With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be:
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest, but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.

Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

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 should listen then, as I am listening now!

The Skylark symbolizes the ideal, perfect poet. The Skylark need not deal with the pain of loss and memory, the obfuscations and confusions of the senses. It just sings. Like the West Wind, Shelley depicts the Skylark as the ideal in nature to which humankind must aspire. A unified image of Shelley’s poetic vision begins to emerge. Perhaps humanity, when free at last like Prometheus, will some day be able to sing like the Skylark and be at one with the West Wind.

Shelley follows this poem and ends the collection with “Ode to Liberty” because it reaffirms and restates the vision of “Prometheus Unbound.” “Ode to Liberty” is a roughly 300 line lyric that alternates between iambic and trochaic meters of varying length. It traces the progress of Liberty, symbolized by a soaring eagle, through human history. It is one of Shelley’s greatest, though unjustly ignored, poems. He sings the war and despair before liberty existed, describes the democracies of Greece and Athens, sings the middle ages when liberty slept, before arriving at the revolutions of his own period. He concludes with a moral and political exhortation to Western civilization:

He who taught man to vanquish whatsoever
Can be between the cradle and the grave
Crowned him the King of Life. Oh, vain endeavour!
If on his own high will, a willing slave,
He has enthroned the oppression and the oppressor
What if earth can clothe and feed
Amplest millions at their need,
And power in thought be as the tree within the seed?
Or what if Art, an ardent intercessor,
Driving on fiery wings to Nature’s throne,
Checks the great mother stooping to caress her,
And cries: ‘Give me, thy child, dominion
Over all height and depth’? if Life can breed
New wants, and wealth from those who toil and groan,
Rend of thy gifts and hers a thousandfold for one!

Come thou, but lead out of the inmost cave
Of man’s deep spirit, as the morning-star
Beckons the Sun from the Eoan wave,
Wisdom. I hear the pennons of her car
Self-moving, like cloud charioted by flame;
Comes she not, and come ye not,
Rulers of eternal thought,
To judge, with solemn truth, life’s ill-apportioned lot?
Blind Love, and equal Justice, and the Fame
Of what has been, the Hope of what will be?
O Liberty! if such could be thy name
Wert thou disjoined from these, or they from thee:
If thine or theirs were treasures to be bought
By blood or tears, have not the wise and free
Wept tears, and blood like tears?The solemn harmony

One can’t easily adduce a more eloquent poem in support of classical Enlightenment libertarianism. Shelley finishes his book by restating the case of “Prometheus Unbound.” He sympathizes with humankind’s attempt to throw off oppression, tyranny, violence, injustices and create their own heaven of peace, love, wisdom, and art on earth.

Unfortunately we have not been able to discuss every poem in the collection, and have only dealt with excerpts. Often these poems are taken out of the context in which they were published. By placing them back within the context of Prometheus Unbound, with Other Poems the collection’s thematic and architectural unity emerges. Shelley’s poetic achievement in 1820 becomes clear. Prometheus Unbound, with Other Poems contained not only Shelley’s greatest works, but some of English poetry’s finest enduring poems. The book itself has fallen out print and into history. However, it should be rediscovered. For the sake of good verse it ought to be on every poetry lover’s bookshelf and in every bookstore right beside Leaves and Grass, Paradise Lost, King Lear, and other English language classics.


Brett Forester is a poet from Ottawa, Canada, who composes entirely in the classical style of English verse. Much of the Ottawa river valley countryside determines the cultural and natural backdrop of his work.

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8 Responses

  1. David Gosselin

    Hi Brett,

    Nice to see the essay. I didn’t know all those poems came out in one collection like that. That is most definitely one of the greatest Poetic interventions into the English language by Shelley. I’m actually based in Montreal, so nice to see a fellow Canadian as well! What I would say however, is that for all the reasons you named in terms of what Shelley was driven by in composing Prometheus Unbound, it actually falls very short of his great poetry. Shelley was trying very hard to weave all his philosophy into a poem, and what really comes across is a forced piece. I’ve read all his works, I’ve read Aeschylus’ Prometheus bound, and it is gripping even in bad translations, but Prometheus bound cannot help but give a forced sense, where because Shelley was trying to do exactly what we said he was, it falls short. We are excited because those ideas we share with him are so transparent, but that does not make it poetry. Ode to a Skylark says 10,000 times more about the human soul as it swims through one of the most profound and “artless” uninhibited development of images and ideas in poetry – one feels truly free. It is carried with the wings of its own melody, it does not need to be explained and contrived to get its idea across. Unfortunately, with Shelley’s longer poems like Prometheus, Epyschidion, and similar others, they are very forced. I’m not saying that to bring Shelley down, he is one of the best, but one see’s how even the greatest poet cannot just sit down and write no matter how good one’s ideas if they are trying to telegraph something to us. It needs to feel as if nature, like Ode to the West Wing, like Ode to a Skylark or Hymn to Intellectual beauty. Even Poe, who loved Shelley, particularly The Sensitive Plant, made the point that Shelley is sometimes guilty of the cardinal sin in writing, which is to overwrite. And this has nothing to do with the length of the poem. They are great ideas, but they are great ideas that he tries to use poetry as a vehicle for, but poetry serves only one end: poetry. As soon as necessity begins to make demands upon poetry, she is not free. Again I don’t say this to be negative in any way, but the idea is that some people may get the idea after where they start to moralize in their poetry as opposed to focussing on poetry as such. No one is saying poetry is not moral, the opposite, for poetry to be moral, it must sound free, the ideas must be as if nature. In a word: Shelley’s Ozymandias accomplishes in 14 lines what Prometheus Bound could not accomlish in thousands of lines. That’s what I would say. People may agree or disagree.

    • Brett

      Hello David,

      Thanks for your response. Having these sorts of discussions about literature is always fun for me. I suppose I have to agree with your assessment of Prometheus Unbound if only because these types of aesthetic evaluations are, at base and despite scholars’ attempts, subjective and malleable. However, I would like to point out in response that my argument what not that Prometheus Unbound, as a singular poem, was Shelley’s greatest. Rather I hoped to show that the collection “Prometheus Unbound with other poems,” if stayed with cover to cover, carries one on a poetical and lyrical tour de force. In this respect, the political, philosophical, and diagetical aspects of Prometheus Unbound do not stand in contrast to the refined succinctness of Skylark or West Wind, but rather in compliment to these shorter works. Thus, the collection itself brings the reader from the political, social, and religious allegory of Prometheus Unbound through to West Wind and Skylark’s poetic rumination on nature, being, and the soul. Of course some individual poems will always be better than others, regardless of the scale we use to evaluate them. I merely hoped to display how the scope, unity, and grandeur of this collection has been overlooked in this past.

  2. Lew Icarus Bede

    1. Mr. Forester has done a wonderful service by reminding us of Percy Shelley’s relative importance in English literature, and in particular, Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound With Other Poems.” In calling “Prometheus Unbound,” a lyric drama in four acts, Shelley perhaps saw his own limits in his foray into drama. I must admit it has been a long time since I read Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound,” and it is one of those works that I have never been drawn back to, even with Mr. Forester’s enthusiastic advocacy.

    2. “Prometheus Unbound” still is an important work, even while its existence suggests that poetic drama seemed incompatible with the theatre in English at the beginning of the 19th century. In the same way that I admire Thoreau’s willingness to take Homer’s “Iliad” to Walden, I admire Shelley’s attempt to reinterpret Aeschylus’ Prometheus. Though much of Thoreau’s “Walden” repels me, I prefer it to Shelley’s pathetic [i.e., emotional] attempt in “Prometheus Unbound.” Dislike, by the way, does not detract from the greatness of an attempt. After all, who now in Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Russian, French, Japanese, Hindi, German, Portuguese, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Italian, Polish, etc. is attempting poetic drama in their language on a level that competes with those great ancient Greeks, like Aeschylus and Sophocles? Perhaps someone somewhere is, but I am unaware of such. Maybe some of our good readers know of such.

    3. I do concur with both Mr. Forester and Mr. Gosselin in their praise of “Ode to the West Wind,” despite its melodramatic “I fall upon the thorns of life. I bleed…” and “Ode to a Skylark,” both commendable poems. In “Ode to the West Wind,” if Shelley’s terza rima is less fluid than Dante’s terza rima, this has a lot to do with the Italian language itself. This is not to denigrate Shelley’s lines, only to indicate how remarkable Dante’s poetry is, particularly in “Divina Commedia.” Let me place nine lines of Canto 34 next to the opening nine lines of Shelley’s poem.

    “Oh quanto parve a me gran maraviglia
    quand’ io vidi tre facce a sua testa!
    L’ una dinanzi, e quella era vermiglia;

    l’ altr’ eran due, che s’ aggiugnieno a questa
    sovresso ‘l mezzo di ciascuna spalla,
    e sé giugnieno al loco de la cresta:

    e la destra parea tra bianca e gialla;
    la sinostra a veder era tal, quali
    vegnon di là onde ‘l Nilo s’ avvalla.”

    “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
    Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
    Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

    Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
    pestilence-striken multitudes: O thou,
    Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

    The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
    Each like a corpse within its grave, until
    Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow…”

    And then next, Carmelo Mangano’s translation of the latter:

    “O selvaggio Vento dell’ Ovest, tu respiro dell’ essenza dell’ autunno,
    Tu, dalla cui presenza invisiblile le foglie morte
    Sono spinte, come fantasmi che fuggono da un incantatore.

    Gialle, e nere, e pallide, e rosse febbrili,
    Moltitudini colpite de pestilenza: O tu,
    Che porti (sui tu cocchio) al loro oscuro letto invernale

    I semi alati, dove giacciono freddi e bassi,
    Ognuno come un cadavere nella sua tomba, fino a quando
    La tua azzurra sorella della Primavera suonerà…”

    T. S. Eliot said of Shelley that he “knew Dante well and…towards the end of his life was beginning to profit by it, the one English poet of the nineteenth century who could even have begun to follow those foot steps…” I know I, too, was drawn to Dante’s terza rima, especially in my bildings, and their compounds.

    4. I would not say that Shelley’s work served almost as “holy writ” for Browning, though Browning was passionate for Shelley’s works in his youth. T. S. Eliot once said that “an enthusiasm for Shelley seems…to be an affair of adolescence: for most of us, Shelley has marked an intense period before maturity…”

    5. Matthew Arnold famously called Shelley a “beautiful but ineffectual angel.” I never think of Shelley as an angel.

    6. I completely agree with Mr. Forester that “Prometheus Unbound With Other Poems” should be on the shelf, and in the bookstore “next to “Leaves of Grass”; it is that good.

    7. Though I do not share what Mr. Gosselin (and many others) look for in a poem, I do admire Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” It is a remarkable work. Its four vantage points, the narrator, the traveler from an antique land, the sculptor, and Pharoah Rameses, form an excellent dramatic vignette. Shelley’s poem is so brilliant because of its diction, its ironies , its setting, its dispassionate tone (which even Keats was achieving in his “Odes”), its alliteration and assonance, and its breathtaking sweep. This is a technically, skillfully-written poem. Mr. Mantyk ranked this his 8th greatest poem ever written. [This I would not do, but it does suggest its power.] And yet, I am embarrassed to think that I agree with Mr. Gosselin’s hyperbolic “‘Ozymandias’ accomplishes in 14 lines what ‘Prometheus Bound’ could not accomplish in thousands of lines…”; but I do. Perhaps Mr. Forester could correct our judgment.

    “I met a traveller from an antique land,
    Who said—”Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert….Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal, these words appear:
    ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

    With a rhyme scheme of ababadedfefgfg, Shelley showed me that the sonnet could develop along other lines, indirectly leading me to an older creation of mine, which I call an American sonnet with a rhyme scheme of ababcdecdefgfg, and other longer units.

    8. “Ozymandias” is such a remarkable work, I am embarrassed to include a qaṣῑda I wrote long ago to show in what ways my poetic stance differed from that of Shelley; but when we put pencil or pen to paper, or type to electronic screen,each of us is making a statement; and in that moment, each of us cannot help but be compared to the writings of all history, in all languages. And it is not an easy thing to do; and yet it must be done. For, after all, why should anyone give precious time to read another’s work. In some ways, it is much easier to see this in a field, like mathematics, where each individual mathematician sometimes contributes one proof, an insight, or a technique. And as messy as poetry is, so, too, is mathematics; and it is only time and scholarship that show, at least somewhat, what was significant. So, with that in mind, forgive my poor poem, which pales in comparison with Shelley’s on so many levels (though outdoes it in others) with some brief following sentences.

    by Basil Drew Eceu

    He was the ruler of an antique land,
    the Pharaoh Rameses the Second. Grand,
    stone temples crossed his kingdom of the sand,
    like that at Abu Simbel, now o’erspanned
    by th’ Aswan High Dam’s watery command,
    or Hypostyle Hall at Karnak. These stand
    as monuments, with others, to the hand
    that led a nation to the world he scanned.
    Such was the empire that his subjects spanned:
    it went from Upper Egypt to the strand
    along the Delta of the Nile and fanned
    up to Kadesh, where with twice ten thousánd
    he faced the Hittites, twice as many manned.
    And afterwards, that bloody act’s demand,
    the first peace treaty in the world was planned.

    α. The first line echoes Shelley, and tosses out the fictive narrative.
    β. The odd enjambment of “Grand” applies both forward and back.
    γ. This is one of the nicer lines.
    δ. The first example is specific.
    ε. The typical banal theme, time destroys all, is dispensed with early.
    ζ. A second example is specifically named. Stand is made less emphatic.
    η. A rather bland prosaic line (which I am frequently striving for!).
    θ. I am looking at the actual man historically.
    ι. Here the focus is on the Egyptian subjects (probably the American in me).
    κ. This is a geographical locator.
    λ. This line points out the importance of the Nile.
    μ. Rameses II took his army of 20,000? to Kadesh around 1274 BC. [thousánd, pronounced spondee].
    ν. The Hittites had around 40,000? troops. It was perhaps the largest chariot battle in history.
    Note Shelley’s remarkable use of “chariotest” as a verb in “Ode to the West Wind.”
    ξ. The number of deaths are unknown, but simply noted abstractly.
    ο. The battle was a draw. In 1258 BC, the World’s first peace treaty was drawn up.

    Notice, that, unlike the Romantics, I am trying to deactivate the excitement and emphasize fact. It was a preposterous challenge to use 15 (not 14) lines of one rhyme; but I thought I could try to write a “qaṣῑda” in English, on a topic from the Middle East.

    9. I look forward to hearing more from Canadians Mr. Forester and Mr. Gosselin, who can offer their own insights about English literature. Mr. Forester’s opening sentence, “Writing but one fine, enduring poem is a remarkable achievement…” is a promising one, because it suggests he has high standards. I agree completely with that statement. How many relatively important poets are noted mainly for but one, two, or three poems? In prose, Abraham Lincoln wrote at least a dozen volumes of speeches (I used to own them all, but I can’t recall the exact number); and he has one extraordinary speech, “The Gettysburg Address,” and maybe a few quotes. But what a speech. Those 260+ words compose one of the most eloquent addresses of all time.

    10. At times Shelley’s lines surprise, as for example, one of the tiny following stanzas from “To a Skylark,” that Mr. Forester pointed out, a mere 23 words, but interwoven so neatly, so competently, with alliteration, rhyme, cadence, and intricate diction that it is utterly amazing. Though I do prefer the younger Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” and both poems have their flaws as well, as Mr. Gosselin recently pointed out in the case of Keats, I cannot but note in closing the artistry of Shelley’s poesy.

    “With thy clear keen joyance
    Languor cannot be:
    Shadow of annoyance
    Never came near thee:
    Thou lovest, but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.”

    • Brett

      Hi Lew,

      Thanks for the response. I won’t reply to all of your points because most of them are well taken. You are right about Shelley’s terza rima; it’s a highly difficult meter to master in modern English! Modern English is uninflected so the paucity of natural rhymes makes the meter easily sound clunky, whereas Dante’s Italian is loaded with rhymable words. With respect to Shelley and drama, he tried a stage drama in 5 acts called the Cenci. I believe it was first staged by, who else, Robert Browning and others, but I might be wrong about that. “Holy writ” might have been hyperbole, but not much. T.S Eliot also notably disagreed with Shelley over basic aesthetics. Eliot considered poetry autotelic, or an end-in-itself, and not a political utility, whereas Prometheus Unbound centers on political and social yearning for change. This basic difference is important because Shelley’s influence was not always restricted to adolescence. Shelley’s Queen Mab influenced Bernard Shaw towards socialism, and a rather Shelleyan political approach to literature persists throughout Shaw’s mature oeuvre. Similarly, Browning’s “Essay on Shelley” shows Browning never abandoned Shelley as Browning matured. The whispers of Shelley are everywhere in Santayana’s poetry and in his naturalist philosophy.


  3. Lew Icarus Bede

    I very much enjoyed reading your remarks; for “having these sorts of discussions about literature” may be “fun,” but I also find they hone both poetry and and prose.

    It is amazing how vast English literature is. I am happy to be reminded of Shelley’s play, “The Cenci,” another work I read decades ago, and had completely forgotten, and wrongfully so. From the little I remember of that play, I think the barbaric Count Cenci had committed incest with his daughter, and rejoiced in the deaths of two sons, before he was murdered and much of his family put to death. Competing on at least three levels, Elizabethan, Italian, and Greek, it was enough to secure his position as the greatest of the Romantic dramatists; but neverthess a failure. What I vaguely remember, and it is true my memory is hardly infallible, I thought at the time the play was an o’erwrought melodramatic “Hamlet,” but without the poetry of Shakespeare. I think I also thought that it was a cross between Oedipus and Antigone, but without the poetic power of Sophocles. But which English poet could achieve that?

    I agree with Mr. Forester that Browning never “abandoned” Shelley, even as he “matured.” In so many ways, Browning followed Shelley, but most particularly “to Italy,” as for example in his works, like “My Last Duchess,” “Fra Lippo Lippi” “Andrea del Sarto,” “A Toccata of Gaulppi’s,” and “The Ring and the Book.” I suppose I am about to step out on a ledge again, but I think, Browning, in his dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess,” had a greater sense of dramatic poetry than Shelley did, even if Shelley’s attempt was of a grander moment than Browning’s.

    But who can doubt that the Irish, Fabian Shaw admired the atheist, firebrand Shelley? Shaw, one of the best of the Irish fin de siècle dramatists, who I think now after reading Mr. Forester, may have had more dramatic acumen than I gave him credit for, perhaps, without envy, appreciated Shelley’s plays in a way that T. S. Eliot never would. And though I think T. S. Eliot knew more about drama than either Shelley or Shaw, did not write drama as well as either of them. I do remember, though, being appalled at Shaw’s critical evaluation of Shakespeare, so much so, that I wrote the third following tennos on the topic.

    Three on Shakespeare
    by Wilude Scabere

    1. Voltaire on Shakespeare

    His is a fine untutored nature; truly he has heart;
    but neither regularity, propriety, nor art.
    When he is in the midst of his superb sublimity,
    he oft descends to grossness and obtuse buffoonery.
    His tragedy is chaos, lacking any harmony;
    his style is unbridled; there’s no classic unity.
    His plays are vulgar, barbarous, and truly would not be
    supported by the lowest scum of France or Italy.
    When I observe his dramas acted, this is what I find:
    his work’s the inspiration of a drunken savage mind.

    2. Tolstoy on King Lear

    His play is so unnatural, as are the speeches there,
    a carelessly composed production oozing with despair.
    It can’t evoke much more than weariness or odium.
    It’s overblown with rhetoric and banter’s tedium.
    It’s filled with unbelievable events and characters,
    who always speak in similar pretentious registers,
    which they could never speak, nor has a living man e’er spoke.
    It is a case of rubbish that can only make one choke.
    The play’s death-ridden end’s absurd; the writing there is slack.
    The writer Shakespeare’s little more than a bombastic hack.

    3. Shaw on Shakespeare

    His stagey melodrama trash is of the lowest form,
    abominably written, worthy of naught else but scorn.
    His plays are vulgar, foolish, and beyond all tolerance,
    as are his gods and ghosts and glib, improbable events.
    Except for Homer there is none whom I so much despise.
    I’d like to dig him up and throw stones at him where he lies.
    His plays are too fanatstic for the modernistic stage,
    where serious and realistic scenes enthrall the Age.
    His work’s offensive and indecent , filled with lots of rot.
    In truth, his work lies even under that of Walter Scott.

    Of course, we can learn things in the negative evaluations of others, that are missed otherwise; and I must admit, when I was having to deal with the brilliance of Shakespearean poetry, it helped to have figures, like Nietzsche and others, to find where the differences were between Shakespeare and myself.

    As for the whispers of Shelley being “everywhere” in Santayana’s poetry and in his naturalist philosophy, I am not completely convinced. First off, I have never appreciated Santayana’s verse at all; and if whispers of Shelley are “everywhere” in it, perhaps that is why. As for Santatana’s naturalist philosophy, I remember having a book called the “Winds of Doctrine” (I used to have over 1000 books, but since the advent of the Internet, I have shed nearly all of them.) which had a section on Shelley. But other than having a vague idea that both writers were atheists, and that Santayana admired Shelley, I don’t know how the latter influenced the former, nor am I even sure that it matters much in the grand currents of philosophy.

    Let me toss out one last example. “Hellas: Chorus” by Shelley has great energy, but not only does it argue against itself, it is unconvincing, at least to me. This is the type of poem that I think T. S. Eliot thought immature; Shelley has not thought through his ideas. Yet, in fact, the ideas very nearly are the poem; and are more on the poetic level of Hecate’s speech in “Macbeth” than even the prose of Lady Macbeth or the Porter. They lack an inner depth.

    “The world’s great age begins anew,
    The golden years return,
    The earth doth like a snake renew
    Her winter weeds outworn:
    Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam
    Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.

    A brighter Hellas rears its mountains
    From waves serener far;
    A new Peneus rolls his fountains
    Against the morning star.
    Where fairer Tempes bloom, there sleep
    Young Cyclads on a sunnier deep.

    A loftier Argo cleaves the main,
    Fraught with a later prize;
    Another Orpheus sings again,
    And loves, and weeps, and dies.
    A New Ulysses leaves once more
    Calypso for his native shore.

    Oh, write no more the tale of Troy,
    If earth Death’s scroll must be!
    Nor mix with Laian rage the joy
    Which dawn upon the free:
    Although a subtler Sphinx renew
    Riddles of death Thebes never knew.

    Another Athens shall arise,
    And to remoter time
    Bequeath, like sunset to the skies,
    The splendour of its prime;
    And leave, if nought so bright may live,
    All earth can take or Heaven give.

    Saturn and Love their long repose
    Shall burst, more bright and good
    Than all who fell, than One who rose,
    Than many unsubdu’d:
    Not gold, nor blood, their altar dowers.
    But votive tears and symbol flowers.

    Oh cease! must hate and death return?
    Cease! must men kill and die?
    Cease! drain not to the dregs the urn
    Of bitter prophecy.
    The world is weary of the past,
    Oh might it die or rest at last!”

  4. James Sale

    A very useful essay on Shelley, thank you. He is a great poet, though seriously flawed in my opinion, for reasons possibly not dissimilar to Eliot’s objections: there is always something infantile about utopian-type poets. That said, as a young man I as astounded by Prometheus Unbound and considered it epic. But less so now. A point of great interest about Shelley which is alluded to several times by contributors to this feed is that of terza rima. What is interesting is that Shelley is one of the very few people who have handled this form successfully in the English language. English poets – and Americans too – have a penchant for the 4 lines stanza (e.g. ballad) and the 3 lines do not come easily to them. Shelley’s finest writing in this mode is not mentioned, but it was in fact his unfinished The Triumph of Life, where he has certainly learnt from Dante.

  5. Readpoesy

    What is interesting is that Shelley is one of the very few people who have handled this form successfully in the English language. English poets – and Americans too – have a penchant for the 4 lines stanza (e.g. ballad) and the 3 lines do not come easily to them. Shelley’s finest writing in this mode is not mentioned, but it was in fact his unfinished The Triumph of Life, where he has certainly learnt from Dante.


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