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The Sunday Poem: Anthony Cronin’s personal anthology

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Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

"I have been re-reading Prometheus Unbound" wrote W.B. Yeats in 1900, when he was 35, "and it seems to me to have an even more certain place than I had thought among the sacred books of the world." 'Sacred books' is a little suspicious - surely we are dealing with a poem, not merely with a statement, however eloquent, of belief or theological attitude.

So much writing about Shelley has centred on his beliefs, political, religious, philosophical, that one would be disappointed to find Yeats going in that direction. Like him, I have been re-reading Shelley's mighty poem, having first read it in my late teens or early twenties.

In a way to have read it at that age was a misfortune. Such a subject as the revolt of Man against God's injustices is unlikely to be understood until much later. But Shelley was only 28 when he wrote it and he was well aware of its implications. Keats advised him in a letter to forget his "magnanimity" and concentrate on the poetry. Magnanimity was a good word, meaning Shelley's largeness and generosity of heart. It is certainly there. But so are the contradictions and confusions which can be contained in poetry more than in any other literary form.

(from Prometheus Unbound) The Spirit Of The Hour Speaks

Percy Bysshe Shelley

I wandering went

Among the haunts and dwellings of mankind,

And first was disappointed not to see

Such mighty change as I had felt within

Expressed in outward things; but soon I looked,

And behold, thrones were kingless, and men walked

One with the other even as spirits do,

None fawned, none trampled; hate, disdain or fear,

Self-love or self-contempt, on human brows

No more inscribed as o'er the gate of hell,

'All hope abandon ye who enter here;'

None frowned, none trembled, none with eager fear

Gazed on another's eye of cold command

Until the subject of a tyrant's will

Became, worse fate, the abject of his own,

Which spurred him, like an outspent horse, to death.

None wrought his lips in truth-entangling lines

Which smiled the lie his tongue disdained to speak;

None with firm sneer, trod out in his own heart

The sparks of love and hope, till there remained

Those bitter ashes, a soul self-consumed......

None talked that common, false, cold, hollow talk

Which makes the heart deny the yes it breathes,

Yet question that unmeant hypocrisy

With such a self-mistrust as has no name.

Sunday Independent