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P.B. Shelley - a madman or a poetic genius

A poet not understood.

The end of the twentieth century in modern criticism and literature is remembered as a period of great interest for romanticism and all that it bequeathed. That is why in the last several decades a substantial number of research papers and books have been published where we can obtain revaluations of all poetic works of the greatest romantic poets among which Percy Bysshe Shelley holds a very prominent place.Shelley?s life and his personality provoked disputes which had, on one hand elevated Shelley as a hero and paragon while on the other they condemned this rebel who, according to some opinions, could hardly be considered sane. Unusual for his time, Shelley was thought to be, according to some critics a debauchee while for the others he was taken for a man empty of ideas. However, no matter how much they had either criticized or praised him they all agreed upon one thing ? that Shelley?s lyrics were poetic achievement of the loftiest kind. Shelley?s literary work is, without any doubt, a synthesis of a great reformist, visionary and idealist, a poet exhilarated by the ideas of Thomas Paine and William Godwin carried on the wings of the revolution which was, according to his opinion, taking mankind into a new era of earthly welfares. Everything that imbued Shelley as a thinker and a maker represents a path from eternal idealism to universal love, abiding beauty and aerial freedom of man. On the other hand, completely aware of the consequences of rapid industrialization, where even child labor was exposed to inhuman exploitation, Shelley introduced Greek democracy to the world. While addressing Hellenism as an ante-thesis to modernity Shelley was considered an utopist while at the same time one fact was neglected ? how far was his view of the world objective when he sought a solution out of the mercilessness of modern life in Greek democracy. That is exactly why he found inspiration in Achilles? dramas as well as ethical-democratic norms of Greek democracy, especially at the time of Peracles. Unfortunately, on the other hand, history denied what was Shelley?s vision ? love, philanthropy and freedom ? that is postulates that carried him to the sublime and utopia and could not protect the human and moral from the evils of industrialization. In the context of Shelley?s work we find his unique determination to cast off the existing world as well as life in its outer, concrete appearances. This enabled him to interpret the former according to their deepest meaning and sense that represents the source of a revolutionary rapture. Consequently Shelley turned to the lyrics and the lyric drama as the most consistent expression of humanism and visions of a better life. Due to his utopian and abstract ideas about life and the world in general, in the XIX century, Shelley became poete maudit. Characterized as such, the poet was in eternal hostility with the society, which did not accept him. In all biographies of poetes mauditis we see harsh criticism, hostility and lack of understanding of the society, loneliness and small circles of admirers. In a way this is very logical ? the poet stops to be the national bard, prophet and a spokesman of understandable ideas and truths. He is a solitary, who as an ancient alchemist, is concerned with his own world, speaks a language not understandable but does not mind if anyone will understand him. He usually tells his readers very painful truths about life and human nature, which are very distant and different from the so-called beautiful literature cherished at their time. Poetes mauditis are a symbol of a deep and eternal chasm between poetry and audience, between utilitarian views of the society and real artistic values. Shelley was also a radical and a revolutionary poet in his time. In lyric works - Revolt of Islam, Queen Mab, Devil?s Walk, The Mask of Anarchy, Peterloo Massacre etc. he expressed bitterness and dissatisfaction with both domestic and foreign policy of England at that time. Shelley was a free thinker whose deliberation was partly embedded in ancient Greece, and partly in the tradition of French free thinkers - Shaftsbury, Hume and Godwin. In his work, Shelley rejoices ecstatic humanism, immense trust and exaltation in man. We find an intersection of a voice of a biblical prophet and a utopist in his poetry; we always see the same recognizable long, free verse in which Shelley celebrates freedom, love and personal intoxication with life. Optimism and idealism are according to him man?s weapons with which he stands alone, as a Shakespearian hero, in front of all sorts of temptations of the hostile and indifferent society ? and all with one aim ? to create a better future for mankind. His revolutionary and humanistic idealism can be seen in the depicted world in his poetry full of love and freedom, that is, as synthesis of all human values that disappeared in the self-satisfactory XIX century. Shelley?s revolutionary idealism is very powerful when he calls his countrymen to a revolution against the absolutistic government while his humanistic idealism is imbued with the vision of the Saturn?s Golden Age where people are refined by love and freedom. Of course, according to Shelley idealized empire of Saturn belongs to the treasury of eternal poetic archetypes about the ideal world order, the Golden Age that has for its aim to replace this imperfect time of distorted values. Shelley was ,therefore, by all means, a philosophical thinker and a well-formed poet but was always condemned because of his attitude and beliefs while his marital history and sexual freedoms caused scandals which immensely influenced the criticism of his work. The 19th century critics did not pay attention to Shelley's less known lyric and prose works such as Essay on Christianity, Essay on Love, Hellas etc. with an exception of a prose essay Defense of Poetry. They were obviously too pleased with a spectacular comparison of Matthew Arnold who said that Shelley was just a pretty angel who waved his wings in an empty space in vain. They did not acknowledge his systematic way of thinking and wanted to represent him as a poet lacking ideas. Some of contemporaries also considered Shelley a poet who dwelled in the mysterious world whose poetry consisted of evil, meaningless doctrines and indecencies in which he himself did not believe. Critics attacked Shelley?s ideas about religion, morals and politics on one hand while on the other they paid respect to his strong intellect and poetic genius. But Shelley remained energetic, original and offered strong emotions that were to convert the world full of slavery, immorality, lies and hypocrisy. They also thought that his verses could not be of any interest to the sophisticated taste of the readers because they were worthless, full of intellectual perversity and poetic atheism. Shelley?s ideas were, according to them, very distant, rooted in metaphysics, monotonous with bad versification behind which Shelley supposedly hid his poetic immaturity. In spite of this, Shelley?s work was an uncompromized rebellion in the name of new poetic forms which were to represent the drama of a modern man in the world without God and fixed spiritual abode. Of course, there were critics who wrote positive reviews of Shelley?s work in the 19th century periodicals but unfortunately they remained a minority during poet?s life.Lyric drama Prometheus Unbound (spring 1818-winter 1820) represents a masterpiece which had left a trace in the Romantic poetry for it represents a synthesis of Plato?s philosophy in The Feast (which was a foundation for Shelley?s vision of love), ideas and ideals of the French Revolution, an attempt of scientific contemplation and Christian ethics. It is a vision of the future in which we see a utopian version of the world. In Shelley?s ideal world every man is his own master, happy and spiritually fulfilled, bewitched by love that becomes spiritus agens and the most powerful weapon against evil. In respect to the modernity of Shelley?s idealism this drama is up-to-date for it deals with eternal condition of man and the Universe. Another lyric drama worth mentioning is Hellas (1821). It had been written only one year before poet?s death. The Greek fight for independence from the Turks was a sort of crusade for Shelley. It produced a bold speculation that the new great era in the world?s history is about to begin bringing freedom, love and democracy. Apart from this, the poet also wanted to point out one more time (as in Prometheus Unbound) the reasons for the failure of the French Revolution - a symbol of bloodshed and anti-democratic principles. According to Shelley the new Hellas was, on the other hand, the most powerful country in the world today, America, where European expatriates in search of a better life created a new Saturn?s empire. This philosophical vision of the world and history produced expectations that the era of freedom would be restored without tyranny. All changes in the society must be solved democratically not violently. This is the very reason why Shelley stands not only in front of all progressive Romantics in England but in front of the boldest political thinkers of all epochs and the forefather of spokesmen in all nations to whom giving help to the suffering despite their faith, race and nationality is the highest goal today. As far as modern criticism and Shelley are in question we find two different opinions. On one hand we find T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis and others who consider Shelley plagiarist, a bad poet who enjoyed writing sentimental banalities. The only effect that his poetry produced was vanity, emptiness and monotony. On the other hand, however, we find C.S. Lewis, F.A. Pottle, G. Ridenour, W.B. Yeats and others who think quite opposite ? Shelley?s poetry is so beautiful and perfect that modern critics and writers cannot understand because they belong to the so-called ?ship-wrecked? generation which wants to forget the past as well as the future. The most influential modern criticism and poetry owe a lot to Romanticism (although they very often deny it) because this movement had revived creative power, wish for freedom, and a possibility to create myths but also a reorganization of the civilization. However, modern world is different from the world of Romanticism due to the development of urban life where alienation of an individual is very present. A decadence of faith caused by the advancement of science and technology took control over man?s life and brought about the disappearance of optimism that was a guide for the Romantics among whom we find Percy Bysshe Shelley. He showed the way to redemption and a creation of the world of harmony in which a man will be in accordance with himself. The moderns are not able to give absolution for they only speak about meaninglessness of human existence, boredom, sinfulness and the disarrangement of all senses. On the other hand, Shelley?s poetry speaks about us, about our age, it tries to give us the answers that we ask ourselves: Who are we? What are we? Where are we going? What is the meaning of our existence on Earth, our life and our deeds? What will happen to us in the future? What is our vocation here on earth? What is beauty? What is the truth? Why are they so important? All of these questions make his modernity so obvious and even formidable. This is the very reason why, today, in the beginning of the 21st century, we need to revaluate Shelley's influence on modern literature, evaluate his work and give him the respect he deserves more that any other great Romantic poet.

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