Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley



Osais de Broton ethnos aglaiais aptomestha
perainei pros eschaton
ploon nausi d oute pezos ion an eurois
es Uperboreon agona thaumatan odon.

Pind. Pyth. x.

[Composed in the neighbourhood of Bisham Wood, near Great Marlow,
Bucks, 1817 (April-September 23); printed, with title (dated 1818),
"Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of
the Nineteenth Century", October, November, 1817, but suppressed,
pending revision, by the publishers, C & J. Ollier. (A few copies had
got out, but these were recalled, and some recovered.) Published, with
a fresh title-page and twenty-seven cancel-leaves, as "The Revolt of
Islam", January 10, 1818. Sources of the text are (1) "Laon and
Cythna", 1818; (2) "The Revolt of Islam", 1818; (3) "Poetical Works",
1839, editions 1st and 2nd--both edited by Mrs. Shelley. A copy, with
several pages missing, of the "Preface", the Dedication", and "Canto
1" of "Laon and Cythna" is amongst the Shelley manuscripts at the
Bodleian. For a full collation of this manuscript see Mr. C.D.
Locock's "Examination of the Shelley Manuscripts at the Bodleian
Library". Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1903. Two manuscript fragments from
the Hunt papers are also extant: one (twenty-four lines) in the
possession of Mr. W.M. Rossetti, another (9 23 9 to 29 6) in that of
Mr. H. Buxton Forman, C.B. See "The Shelley Library", pages 83-86, for
an account of the copy of "Laon" upon which Shelley worked in revising
for publication.]


The Poem which I now present to the world is an attempt from which I
scarcely dare to expect success, and in which a writer of established
fame might fail without disgrace. It is an experiment on the temper of
the public mind, as to how far a thirst for a happier condition of
moral and political society survives, among the enlightened and
refined, the tempests which have shaken the age in which we live. I
have sought to enlist the harmony of metrical language, the ethereal
combinations of the fancy, the rapid and subtle transitions of human
passion, all those elements which essentially compose a Poem, in the
cause of a liberal and comprehensive morality; and in the view of
kindling within the bosoms of my readers a virtuous enthusiasm for
those doctrines of liberty and justice, that faith and hope in
something good, which neither violence nor misrepresentation nor
prejudice can ever totally extinguish among mankind.

For this purpose I have chosen a story of human passion in its most
universal character, diversified with moving and romantic adventures,
and appealing, in contempt of all artificial opinions or institutions,
to the common sympathies of every human breast. I have made no attempt
to recommend the motives which I would substitute for those at present
governing mankind, by methodical and systematic argument. I would only
awaken the feelings, so that the reader should see the beauty of true
virtue, and be incited to those inquiries which have led to my moral
and political creed, and that of some of the sublimest intellects in
the world. The Poem therefore (with the exception of the first canto,
which is purely introductory) is narrative, not didactic. It is a
succession of pictures illustrating the growth and progress of
individual mind aspiring after excellence, and devoted to the love of
mankind; its influence in refining and making pure the most daring and
uncommon impulses of the imagination, the understanding, and the
senses; its impatience at 'all the oppressions which are done under
the sun;' its tendency to awaken public hope, and to enlighten and
improve mankind; the rapid effects of the application of that
tendency; the awakening of an immense nation from their slavery and
degradation to a true sense of moral dignity and freedom; the
bloodless dethronement of their oppressors, and the unveiling of the
religious frauds by which they had been deluded into submission; the
tranquillity of successful patriotism, and the universal toleration
and benevolence of true philanthropy; the treachery and barbarity of
hired soldiers; vice not the object of punishment and hatred, but
kindness and pity; the faithlessness of tyrants; the confederacy of
the Rulers of the World and the restoration of the expelled Dynasty by
foreign arms; the massacre and extermination of the Patriots, and the
victory of established power; the consequences of legitimate
despotism,--civil war, famine, plague, superstition, and an utter
extinction of the domestic affections; the judicial murder of the
advocates of Liberty; the temporary triumph of oppression, that secure
earnest of its final and inevitable fall; the transient nature of
ignorance and error and the eternity of genius and virtue. Such is the
series of delineations of which the Poem consists. And, if the lofty
passions with which it has been my scope to distinguish this story
shall not excite in the reader a generous impulse, an ardent thirst
for excellence, an interest profound and strong such as belongs to no
meaner desires, let not the failure be imputed to a natural unfitness
for human sympathy in these sublime and animating themes. It is the
business of the Poet to communicate to others the pleasure and the
enthusiasm arising out of those images and feelings in the vivid
presence of which within his own mind consists at once his inspiration
and his reward.

The panic which, like an epidemic transport, seized upon all classes
of men during the excesses consequent upon the French Revolution, is
gradually giving place to sanity. It has ceased to be believed that
whole generations of mankind ought to consign themselves to a hopeless
inheritance of ignorance and misery, because a nation of men who had
been dupes and slaves for centuries were incapable of conducting
themselves with the wisdom and tranquillity of freemen so soon as some
of their fetters were partially loosened. That their conduct could not
have been marked by any other characters than ferocity and
thoughtlessness is the historical fact from which liberty derives all
its recommendations, and falsehood the worst features of its
deformity. There is a reflux in the tide of human things which bears
the shipwrecked hopes of men into a secure haven after the storms are
past. Methinks, those who now live have survived an age of despair.

The French Revolution may be considered as one of those manifestations
of a general state of feeling among civilised mankind produced by a
defect of correspondence between the knowledge existing in society and
the improvement or gradual abolition of political institutions. The
year 1788 may be assumed as the epoch of one of the most important
crises produced by this feeling. The sympathies connected with that
event extended to every bosom. The most generous and amiable natures
were those which participated the most extensively in these
sympathies. But such a degree of unmingled good was expected as it was
impossible to realise. If the Revolution had been in every respect
prosperous, then misrule and superstition would lose half their claims
to our abhorrence, as fetters which the captive can unlock with the
slightest motion of his fingers, and which do not eat with poisonous
rust into the soul. The revulsion occasioned by the atrocities of the
demagogues, and the re-establishment of successive tyrannies in
France, was terrible, and felt in the remotest corner of the civilised
world. Could they listen to the plea of reason who had groaned under
the calamities of a social state according to the provisions of which
one man riots in luxury whilst another famishes for want of bread? Can
he who the day before was a trampled slave suddenly become
liberal-minded, forbearing, and independent? This is the consequence
of the habits of a state of society to be produced by resolute
perseverance and indefatigable hope, and long-suffering and
long-believing courage, and the systematic efforts of generations of
men of intellect and virtue. Such is the lesson which experience
teaches now. But, on the first reverses of hope in the progress of
French liberty, the sanguine eagerness for good overleaped the
solution of these questions, and for a time extinguished itself in the
unexpectedness of their result. Thus, many of the most ardent and
tender-hearted of the worshippers of public good have been morally
ruined by what a partial glimpse of the events they deplored appeared
to show as the melancholy desolation of all their cherished hopes.
Hence gloom and misanthropy have become the characteristics of the age
in which we live, the solace of a disappointment that unconsciously
finds relief only in the wilful exaggeration of its own despair. This
influence has tainted the literature of the age with the hopelessness
of the minds from which it flows. Metaphysics (I ought to except sir
W. Drummond's "Academical Questions"; a volume of very acute and
powerful metaphysical criticism.), and inquiries into moral and
political science, have become little else than vain attempts to
revive exploded superstitions, or sophisms like those of Mr. Malthus
(It is remarkable, as a symptom of the revival of public hope, that
Mr. Malthus has assigned, in the later editions of his work, an
indefinite dominion to moral restraint over the principle of
population. This concession answers all the inferences from his
doctrine unfavourable to human improvement, and reduces the "Essay on
Population" to a commentary illustrative of the unanswerableness of
"Political Justice".), calculated to lull the oppressors of mankind
into a security of everlasting triumph. Our works of fiction and
poetry have been overshadowed by the same infectious gloom. But
mankind appear to me to be emerging from their trance. I am aware,
methinks, of a slow, gradual, silent change. In that belief I have
composed the following Poem.

I do not presume to enter into competition with our greatest
contemporary Poets. Yet I am unwilling to tread in the footsteps of
any who have preceded me. I have sought to avoid the imitation of any
style of language or versification peculiar to the original minds of
which it is the character; designing that, even if what I have
produced be worthless, it should still be properly my own. Nor have I
permitted any system relating to mere words to divert the attention of
the reader, from whatever interest I may have succeeded in creating,
to my own ingenuity in contriving to disgust them according to the
rules of criticism. I have simply clothed my thoughts in what appeared
to me the most obvious and appropriate language. A person familiar
with nature, and with the most celebrated productions of the human
mind, can scarcely err in following the instinct, with respect to
selection of language, produced by that familiarity.

There is an education peculiarly fitted for a Poet, without which
genius and sensibility can hardly fill the circle of their capacities.
No education, indeed, can entitle to this appellation a dull and
unobservant mind, or one, though neither dull nor unobservant, in
which the channels of communication between thought and expression
have been obstructed or closed. How far it is my fortune to belong to
either of the latter classes I cannot know. I aspire to be something
better. The circumstances of my accidental education have been
favourable to this ambition. I have been familiar from boyhood with
mountains and lakes and the sea, and the solitude of forests: Danger,
which sports upon the brink of precipices, has been my playmate. I
have trodden the glaciers of the Alps, and lived under the eye of Mont
Blanc. I have been a wanderer among distant fields. I have sailed down
mighty rivers, and seen the sun rise and set, and the stars come
forth, whilst I have sailed night and day down a rapid stream among
mountains. I have seen populous cities, and have watched the passions
which rise and spread, and sink and change, amongst assembled
multitudes of men. I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages
of tyranny and war, cities and villages reduced to scattered groups of
black and roofless houses, and the naked inhabitants sitting famished
upon their desolated thresholds. I have conversed with living men of
genius. The poetry of ancient Greece and Rome, and modern Italy, and
our own country, has been to me, like external nature, a passion and
an enjoyment. Such are the sources from which the materials for the
imagery of my Poem have been drawn. I have considered Poetry in its
most comprehensive sense; and have read the Poets and the Historians
and the Metaphysicians (In this sense there may be such a thing as
perfectibility in works of fiction, notwithstanding the concession
often made by the advocates of human improvement, that perfectibility
is a term applicable only to science.) whose writings have been
accessible to me, and have looked upon the beautiful and majestic
scenery of the earth, as common sources of those elements which it is
the province of the Poet to embody and combine. Yet the experience and
the feelings to which I refer do not in themselves constitute men
Poets, but only prepares them to be the auditors of those who are. How
far I shall be found to possess that more essential attribute of
Poetry, the power of awakening in others sensations like those which
animate my own bosom, is that which, to speak sincerely, I know not;
and which, with an acquiescent and contented spirit, I expect to be
taught by the effect which I shall produce upon those whom I now

I have avoided, as I have said before, the imitation of any
contemporary style. But there must be a resemblance, which does not
depend upon their own will, between all the writers of any particular
age. They cannot escape from subjection to a common influence which
arises out of an infinite combination of circumstances belonging to
the times in which they live; though each is in a degree the author of
the very influence by which his being is thus pervaded. Thus, the
tragic poets of the age of Pericles; the Italian revivers of ancient
learning; those mighty intellects of our own country that succeeded
the Reformation, the translators of the Bible, Shakespeare, Spenser,
the Dramatists of the reign of Elizabeth, and Lord Bacon (Milton
stands alone in the age which he illumined.); the colder spirits of
the interval that succeeded;--all resemble each other, and differ from
every other in their several classes. In this view of things, Ford can
no more be called the imitator of Shakespeare than Shakespeare the
imitator of Ford. There were perhaps few other points of resemblance
between these two men than that which the universal and inevitable
influence of their age produced. And this is an influence which
neither the meanest scribbler nor the sublimest genius of any era can
escape; and which I have not attempted to escape.

I have adopted the stanza of Spenser (a measure inexpressibly
beautiful), not because I consider it a finer model of poetical
harmony than the blank verse of Shakespeare and Milton, but because in
the latter there is no shelter for mediocrity; you must either succeed
or fail. This perhaps an aspiring spirit should desire. But I was
enticed also by the brilliancy and magnificence of sound which a mind
that has been nourished upon musical thoughts can produce by a just
and harmonious arrangement of the pauses of this measure. Yet there
will be found some instances where I have completely failed in this
attempt, and one, which I here request the reader to consider as an
erratum, where there is left, most inadvertently, an alexandrine in
the middle of a stanza.

But in this, as in every other respect, I have written fearlessly. It
is the misfortune of this age that its Writers, too thoughtless of
immortality, are exquisitely sensible to temporary praise or blame.
They write with the fear of Reviews before their eyes. This system of
criticism sprang up in that torpid interval when Poetry was not.
Poetry, and the art which professes to regulate and limit its powers,
cannot subsist together. Longinus could not have been the contemporary
of Homer, nor Boileau of Horace. Yet this species of criticism never
presumed to assert an understanding of its own; it has always, unlike
true science, followed, not preceded, the opinion of mankind, and
would even now bribe with worthless adulation some of our greatest
Poets to impose gratuitous fetters on their own imaginations, and
become unconscious accomplices in the daily murder of all genius
either not so aspiring or not so fortunate as their own. I have sought
therefore to write, as I believe that Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton
wrote, with an utter disregard of anonymous censure. I am certain that
calumny and misrepresentation, though it may move me to compassion,
cannot disturb my peace. I shall understand the expressive silence of
those sagacious enemies who dare not trust themselves to speak. I
shall endeavour to extract, from the midst of insult and contempt and
maledictions, those admonitions which may tend to correct whatever
imperfections such censurers may discover in this my first serious
appeal to the Public. If certain Critics were as clear-sighted as they
are malignant, how great would be the benefit to be derived from their
virulent writings! As it is, I fear I shall be malicious enough to be
amused with their paltry tricks and lame invectives. Should the Public
judge that my composition is worthless, I shall indeed bow before the
tribunal from which Milton received his crown of immortality, and
shall seek to gather, if I live, strength from that defeat, which may
nerve me to some new enterprise of thought which may not be worthless.
I cannot conceive that Lucretius, when he meditated that poem whose
doctrines are yet the basis of our metaphysical knowledge, and whose
eloquence has been the wonder of mankind, wrote in awe of such censure
as the hired sophists of the impure and superstitious noblemen of Rome
might affix to what he should produce. It was at the period when
Greece was led captive and Asia made tributary to the Republic, fast
verging itself to slavery and ruin, that a multitude of Syrian
captives, bigoted to the worship of their obscene Ashtaroth, and the
unworthy successors of Socrates and Zeno, found there a precarious
subsistence by administering, under the name of freedmen, to the vices
and vanities of the great. These wretched men were skilled to plead,
with a superficial but plausible set of sophisms, in favour of that
contempt for virtue which is the portion of slaves, and that faith in
portents, the most fatal substitute for benevolence in the
imaginations of men, which, arising from the enslaved communities of
the East, then first began to overwhelm the western nations in its
stream. Were these the kind of men whose disapprobation the wise and
lofty-minded Lucretius should have regarded with a salutary awe? The
latest and perhaps the meanest of those who follow in his footsteps
would disdain to hold life on such conditions.

The Poem now presented to the Public occupied little more than six
months in the composition. That period has been devoted to the task
with unremitting ardour and enthusiasm. I have exercised a watchful
and earnest criticism on my work as it grew under my hands. I would
willingly have sent it forth to the world with that perfection which
long labour and revision is said to bestow. But I found that, if I
should gain something in exactness by this method, I might lose much
of the newness and energy of imagery and language as it flowed fresh
from my mind. And, although the mere composition occupied no more than
six months, the thoughts thus arranged were slowly gathered in as many

I trust that the reader will carefully distinguish between those
opinions which have a dramatic propriety in reference to the
characters which they are designed to elucidate, and such as are
properly my own. The erroneous and degrading idea which men have
conceived of a Supreme Being, for instance, is spoken against, but not
the Supreme Being itself. The belief which some superstitious persons
whom I have brought upon the stage entertain of the Deity, as
injurious to the character of his benevolence, is widely different
from my own. In recommending also a great and important change in the
spirit which animates the social institutions of mankind, I have
avoided all flattery to those violent and malignant passions of our
nature which are ever on the watch to mingle with and to alloy the
most beneficial innovations. There is no quarter given to Revenge, or
Envy, or Prejudice. Love is celebrated everywhere as the sole law
which should govern the moral world.


There is no danger to a man that knows
What life and death is: there's not any law
Exceeds his knowledge; neither is it lawful
That he should stoop to any other law.--CHAPMAN.

TO MARY -- --.

So now my summer-task is ended, Mary,
And I return to thee, mine own heart's home;
As to his Queen some victor Knight of Faery,
Earning bright spoils for her enchanted dome;
Nor thou disdain, that ere my fame become _5
A star among the stars of mortal night,
If it indeed may cleave its natal gloom,
Its doubtful promise thus I would unite
With thy beloved name, thou Child of love and light.

The toil which stole from thee so many an hour, _10
Is ended,--and the fruit is at thy feet!
No longer where the woods to frame a bower
With interlaced branches mix and meet,
Or where with sound like many voices sweet,
Waterfalls leap among wild islands green, _15
Which framed for my lone boat a lone retreat
Of moss-grown trees and weeds, shall I be seen;
But beside thee, where still my heart has ever been.

Thoughts of great deeds were mine, dear Friend, when first
The clouds which wrap this world from youth did pass. _20
I do remember well the hour which burst
My spirit's sleep. A fresh May-dawn it was,
When I walked forth upon the glittering grass,
And wept, I knew not why; until there rose
From the near schoolroom, voices that, alas! _25
Were but one echo from a world of woes--
The harsh and grating strife of tyrants and of foes.

And then I clasped my hands and looked around--
--But none was near to mock my streaming eyes,
Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground-- _30
So without shame I spake:--'I will be wise,
And just, and free, and mild, if in me lies
Such power, for I grow weary to behold
The selfish and the strong still tyrannise
Without reproach or check.' I then controlled _35
My tears, my heart grew calm, and I was meek and bold.

And from that hour did I with earnest thought
Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore;
Yet nothing that my tyrants knew or taught
I cared to learn, but from that secret store _40
Wrought linked armour for my soul, before
It might walk forth to war among mankind;
Thus power and hope were strengthened more and more
Within me, till there came upon my mind
A sense of loneliness, a thirst with which I pined. _45

Alas, that love should be a blight and snare
To those who seek all sympathies in one!--
Such once I sought in vain; then black despair,
The shadow of a starless night, was thrown
Over the world in which I moved alone:-- _50
Yet never found I one not false to me,
Hard hearts, and cold, like weights of icy stone
Which crushed and withered mine, that could not be
Aught but a lifeless clod, until revived by thee.

Thou Friend, whose presence on my wintry heart _55
Fell, like bright Spring upon some herbless plain;
How beautiful and calm and free thou wert
In thy young wisdom, when the mortal chain
Of Custom thou didst burst and rend in twain,
And walked as free as light the clouds among, _60
Which many an envious slave then breathed in vain
From his dim dungeon, and my spirit sprung
To meet thee from the woes which had begirt it long!

No more alone through the world's wilderness,
Although I trod the paths of high intent, _65
I journeyed now: no more companionless,
Where solitude is like despair, I went.--
There is the wisdom of a stern content
When Poverty can blight the just and good,
When Infamy dares mock the innocent, _70
And cherished friends turn with the multitude
To trample: this was ours, and we unshaken stood!

Now has descended a serener hour,
And with inconstant fortune, friends return;
Though suffering leaves the knowledge and the power _75
Which says:--Let scorn be not repaid with scorn.
And from thy side two gentle babes are born
To fill our home with smiles, and thus are we
Most fortunate beneath life's beaming morn;
And these delights, and thou, have been to me _80
The parents of the Song I consecrate to thee.

Is it that now my inexperienced fingers
But strike the prelude of a loftier strain?
Or, must the lyre on which my spirit lingers
Soon pause in silence, ne'er to sound again, _85
Though it might shake the Anarch Custom's reign,
And charm the minds of men to Truth's own sway
Holier than was Amphion's? I would fain
Reply in hope--but I am worn away,
And Death and Love are yet contending for their prey. _90

And what art thou? I know, but dare not speak:
Time may interpret to his silent years.
Yet in the paleness of thy thoughtful cheek,
And in the light thine ample forehead wears,
And in thy sweetest smiles, and in thy tears, _95
And in thy gentle speech, a prophecy
Is whispered, to subdue my fondest fears:
And through thine eyes, even in thy soul I see
A lamp of vestal fire burning internally.

They say that thou wert lovely from thy birth, _100
Of glorious parents thou aspiring Child.
I wonder not--for One then left this earth
Whose life was like a setting planet mild,
Which clothed thee in the radiance undefiled
Of its departing glory; still her fame _105
Shines on thee, through the tempests dark and wild
Which shake these latter days; and thou canst claim
The shelter, from thy Sire, of an immortal name.

One voice came forth from many a mighty spirit,
Which was the echo of three thousand years; _110
And the tumultuous world stood mute to hear it,
As some lone man who in a desert hears
The music of his home:--unwonted fears
Fell on the pale oppressors of our race,
And Faith, and Custom, and low-thoughted cares, _115
Like thunder-stricken dragons, for a space
Left the torn human heart, their food and dwelling-place.

Truth's deathless voice pauses among mankind!
If there must be no response to my cry--
If men must rise and stamp with fury blind _120
On his pure name who loves them,--thou and I,
Sweet friend! can look from our tranquillity
Like lamps into the world's tempestuous night,--
Two tranquil stars, while clouds are passing by
Which wrap them from the foundering seaman's sight, _125
That burn from year to year with unextinguished light.

_54 cloaking edition 1818. See notes at end.