Shelley's Poetry and Prose
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
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Nowadays, Percy Shelley is read less than his common-law wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley—something, I’m sure, that would cause him despair. Mary’s claim to fame is one horror story written when she was a teenager, while Percy viewed himself as a poetic superstar and famously believed that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The irony would be bitter for him.
This difference in readership is not due to ability—Percy is much the better writer. Nor is it based on differing subject matter. Mary’s Frankenstein contains the classic argument for man’s basic goodness, but Shelley argues for the same thing in the only poem students read from this anthology, Prometheus Unbound.
Here, Prometheus stands for the man who dares to shake his fist at God and trust himself. Though he suffers, he will not submit to God. Eventually his perseverance pays off—his Tormentor is cast down and he ushers in a global utopia where “The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains/Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed—but man:/Equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless,/Exempt from awe, worship, degree—the King/Over himself; just, gentle wise . . .” Students should hear echoes of Karl Marx here, which is especially noteworthy because this was written long before the Communist Manifesto.
Students should also quickly understand the relationship between Prometheus Unbound and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Is it better to reign in hell or serve in heaven? Percy Shelley leaves no doubt about his answer, which helps students see anew the satanic pride that mars all human hearts apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ.
by Jeff Baldwin