Shelley’s Spiritual Quest


Dr Ann Wroe, Obituaries Editor, The Economist, London

21 October 2012


A talk by Dr Ann Wroe, obituaries editor at The Economist, given as part of the weekend symposium on European Romanticism, on 21 October 2012. What follows is a short summary.

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is famous these days for his radicalism and his atheism, in equal measure. But Shelley is also a spiritual poet of rare power, and a spiritual guide of rare value; facts that are sadly neglected. His atheism, which he emphasised and never disavowed, was a reaction to the religious establishment in England, to superstition and the figure of a vengeful and almighty God; yet he never negated, and in fact ever searched for ‘a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe’, as he put it in the notes to Queen Mab. From the beginning, he treated the world as an illusion from which he longed to escape; life was a dream, and the soul was a spirit merely trapped into mortality. Compelling incidents in his life, such as the encounter as a schoolboy with the ‘Spirit of Intellectual Beauty’, increased his longing to discover the truths behind existence. In casual conversation, Shelley often skated round metaphysical ideas, especially that of the soul’s immortality; he ‘hoped for’ this further, higher life, rather than believed in it. But many of his longer poems, especially The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, Adonais and Epipsychidion, involve voyages deep, into other states of consciousness, and other realms of being. His treatment of the imagination in A Defence of Poetry reveals it as, above all, a sun-like and godlike spiritual force.

In his younger years, influenced by Lucretius, Godwin and David Hume, the power behind Shelley’s universe was Necessity.  Gradually, however, his growing sympathy with Platonic thought led him to the conclusion that the motive force in life, that ‘unseen Power’ was love. Love and liberty were conjoined, and not merely his controversial philosophy of sexual freedom; he saw them as a force for ultimate self-liberation, in which man’s true potential might be unleashed in order to overthrow tyrants, banish restrictive custom and transform the world. Shelley’s longed-for political revolutions were always grounded in this ‘moral revolution’ of the heart.  Without love, and the loss of selfish limitations, true revolution could not take place; for men and women thus connected with their own internal power with the same internal power that moved the stars.

Ann Wroe 28 August 2013