Imagine a man whose list of admirers reads like this:
- poets and writers of the order of Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, Mary Shelley, Keats, Robert Browning and Thomas Hardy
- social activists, no less than Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr,
- intellectual giants on the scale of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, WB Yeats and Aldous Huxley
You will only begin to gain an idea of the powerhouse that Percy Bysshe Shelley was and to think he was less than 30 when he died in an unfortunate storm. But it would have taken nothing less to bring such a man down!
Whether it be ‘The Necessity of Atheism’, that got him kicked out of Oxford and disowned by his father, or ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ that got the mighty British Empire on his chase, all his life Shelley ran afoul of all kinds of authority, refusing to give up on what he believed. And yet, a gentler soul may never have walked upon this earth. Byron (never one to give compliments) said of Shelley:
I never met a man who wasn’t a beast in comparison to him.
Shelley was the perfect anarchist, the perfect romantic and the perfect saint, the sphere of his compassion not limited to just the oppressed society he saw around; he became a vegetarian on realising:
[animals for slaughter] are called into existence by human artifice that they may drag out a short and miserable existence of slavery and disease, that their bodies may be mutilated, their social feelings outraged. It were much better that a sentient being should never have existed, than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery.
Despite Shelley’s unfathomable effect on human society, our standard of living and our moral scruples, he was hounded all his life and taken advantage of even by people close to him. Much of his work went unpublished and his fame is largely posthumous. The Mask of Anarchy, for example, though written in 1819 did not appear in print until 1832. Leigh Hunt withheld it from publication because he thought that, “the public at large had not become sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kindheartedness of the spirit that walked in this flaming robe of verse.”
Likewise, Chartism, a working-class people’s movement for political reform in Britain, inspired by Shelley, existed from 1838 to 1857 but did not directly generate any reforms. It was not until 1867 that urban working men were admitted to the franchise, and not until 1918 that full manhood suffrage was achieved.
Shelley was not just a political activist either; charity begins at home, and so does revolution! Though very happily married (to Mary Shelley, with whom he co-wrote Frankenstein) he had great affections, in particular, towards Jane Williams, herself married, and addressed a number of poems to her. Shelley’s affection towards Jane was known to her husband and also to Mary Shelley, but Shelley’s yearnings were pure almost to the level of devotion, and neither was afflicted by jealousy regarding this relationship. This is something that civil society is still generations from comprehending, let alone accepting.
Shelley was, and remains, in every way a true individual, confident and resolute in his beliefs with enough compassion to spare to last angels. But as his life has shown, while one man’s voice does matter much, yet progress goes at its own pace.
So till the world is ready to see your way, “Stand ye calm and resolute”.