The best poems by Shelley selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Percy Shelley (1792-1822) wrote a considerable amount of poetry in his short life, as well as penning pamphlets such as The Necessity of Atheism (which got him expelled from Oxford) and ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (which contains his famous declaration that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’). But which are Shelley’s very best poems. Undoubtedly, a number of poems immediately spring to mind. Below are what we consider to be Shelley’s ‘top ten’. What’s your favourite Shelley poem?
‘Ozymandias’. Published in The Examiner on 11 January 1818, ‘Ozymandias’ is perhaps Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most celebrated and best-known poem, concluding with the haunting and resounding lines:
‘“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
A sonnet about the remnants of a statue standing alone in a desert – a desert which was once the vast civilisation of Ozymandias, ‘King of Kings’ – the poem is a haunting meditation on the fall of civilisations and the futility of all human endeavour. Shelley wrote the poem as part of a competition with his friend, Horace Smith.
‘Music, when soft voices die’. This short poem, often simply titled ‘To—’, is one of Shelley’s best-known poems thanks to its opening two lines: ‘Music, when soft voices die, / Vibrates in the memory’. The poem was written in 1821, just one year before Shelley drowned, and first published in Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1824 with a preface by Shelley’s widow, the Frankenstein author Mary Shelley.
Alas! I have nor hope nor health,
Nor peace within nor calm around,
Nor that content surpassing wealth
The sage in meditation found,
And walked with inward glory crowned—
Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.
Others I see whom these surround—
Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;
To me that cup has been dealt in another measure …
This is one of Shelley’s finest poems, and, in many ways, one of his most emblematic Romantic poems, given its depiction of individual feeling against the backdrop of the natural world – here, the shores of the sea at the Bay of Naples. In his dejected or miserable state, Shelley reviews his life, muses about death, and thinks about what sort of poetic reputation he has carved out for himself.
‘Mont Blanc’. The Romantics were greatly interested in a quality that Edmund Burke called ‘the Sublime’: that peculiar mixture of awe and terror we feel when confronted with great forces of nature. Percy Shelley’s poem about Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, is a classic example of Romantic poetry about the Sublime – an ode to nature as a powerful and beautiful force. Shelley composed ‘Mont Blanc’ during the summer of 1816, and it was first published in Mary Shelley’s History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland (1817), which – beating Frankenstein by a year – was actually Mary’s first book.
‘To a Skylark’. Shelley completed this, one of his most famous poems, in June 1820. The inspiration for the poem was an evening walk Shelley took with his wife, Mary, in Livorno, in north-west Italy. Mary later described the circumstances that gave rise to the poem: ‘It was on a beautiful summer evening while wandering among the lanes whose myrtle hedges were the bowers of the fire-flies, that we heard the carolling of the skylark.’ The opening line of the poem gave Noel Coward the title for his play Blithe Spirit.
The flower that smiles to-day
All that we wish to stay
Tempts and then flies.
What is this world’s delight?
Lightning that mocks the night,
Brief even as bright …
So begins this poem, sometimes titled ‘Mutability’ (though Shelley, confusingly, wrote another poem called ‘Mutability’), which is one of Shelley’s most widely anthologised poems and a classic example of the carpe diem or ‘seize the day’ poem.
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes …
Written in 1819 during a turbulent time in English history – the Peterloo Massacre, which Shelley also wrote about in his poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, deeply affected the poet – this classic ode is one of Shelley’s best-known poems. The west wind is the wind that would carry Shelley back from Florence (where he was living at the time) to England, where he wanted to help fight for reform and revolution. The west wind thus becomes, before Harold Macmillan, a ‘wind of change’.
As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.
I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh—
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him …
Sometimes called ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, this political poem was written in response to the above-mentioned Peterloo Massacre, when cavalry charged a group of some 60,000 protesters (some accounts put the figure as high as 80,000) in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester. The crowd were protesting over famine and poor economic conditions in the north of England in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. 15 people were killed, and hundreds injured. The nonviolent resistance to violent attempts at suppression, which underpins Shelley’s poem, would later influence Mahatma Gandhi’s own philosophy of nonviolent protest.
‘To the Moon’. We think this little poem is a homage to, or recasting of, a sonnet by the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), who wrote a famous poem addressed to the moon. In Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, Sidney’s alter ego asks the moon if it has such a pale appearance because it is sick with unrequited love. It takes the form of a fragment, in which Shelley addresses or apostrophises the moon and asks why it is so pale (much as Sidney does in his poem).
I weep for Adonais—he is dead!
Oh, weep for Adonais! though our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!
And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years
To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,
And teach them thine own sorrow, say: ‘With me
Died Adonais; till the Future dares
Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity!’
Shelley wrote this poem in 1821 as an elegy on the death of his friend and fellow Romantic poet, John Keats, who had died in Rome of tuberculosis, aged just 25. The poem is a pastoral elegy in the vein of John Milton’s Lycidas, and uses the nine-line stanza form known as the Spenserian stanza, borrowed from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Just over a year later, Shelley himself would be dead – when he drowned, he had a volume of Keats’s poems with him.
If you’re looking for a good edition of Shelley’s poems, we recommend The Major Works (Oxford World’s Classics). For more Romantic poetry, see our pick of Byron’s greatest poems, Keats’s best poems, William Blake’s greatest poems, John Clare’s poetry, and these classic poems by Coleridge.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.