This evening I attended a lecture on Percy Bysshe Shelley and radicalism as part of the Stroud Literary Festival. The talk centered around his poetry’s connections with Atheism and liberalism, giving readings from England 1819, The Mask of Anarchy and Queen Mab.
Having studied the early 19th Century as part of my A-Level course I had some understanding of the period in question. However, the talk provided an extended overview of the context the time: this was a period in which Cobbett and Godwin operated and radicalism fought against the oppressive measures of Liverpool’s government.
Unfortunately, I was left unimpressed with Shelley after this lecture. It is not the poetry itself which I am skeptical of, but his political and social tracts. Before this evening I was unaware that he had published a document called The Declaration of Rights. This was an immediate disappointment when I heard the first few clauses read aloud.
Shelley begins with ‘Government has no rights; it is a delegation from several individuals for the purpose of securing their own. It is therefore just, only so far as it exists by their consent, useful only so far as it operates to their well-being.’
The notion of ‘consent’ was an immediate signpost to Shelley’s influences of Locke and Paine. This was a disappointment because Paine’s own words on the matter fulfill this purpose. He already established in Common Sense the view that government should only receive its right to rule from the consent of others. As his title suggests, this is common sense and therefore for Shelley to be revered by modern audiences for this revised description does not reveal him to be a figure of interest.
This criticism may appear to be pedantic and uninspired: much of Shelley’s life was characterized by his radicalism and therefore his radical prose should be examined with equal weight. However, when a poet can write poems such as Art thou pale for weariness which have both aesthetic and philosophical value, the reader must question whether looking at Shelley as a radical, merely reduces him to a pale imitator.