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) III 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! IV 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: XVII. 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! XVIII. 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.