The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was one of the leading figures in second-generation Romanticism. Along with his contemporaries Byron and Keats, Shelley led the way in English Romanticism.
Shelley’s work was considerably more political than either Byron’s or Keats’s, and he wrote everything from long narrative poems espousing his political and philosophical beliefs to pamphlets and tracts which attempted to popularise the radical ideas he held dear. Below, we select and gloss some of Shelley’s best and most famous quotations, drawn from a range of works he wrote in his thirty years.
This famous quotation constitutes the first two lines of a short poem which Shelley wrote in 1821. It wasn’t published until 1824, two years after Shelley’s sudden death from drowning.
The quotation has become famous because it expresses a commonly understood idea: that music lives on in our memories after it has ceased to be played, and the memory of music can be as powerful and transformative as actually hearing that music being performed:
Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the belovèd’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.
‘An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king’.
Shelley had a knack for arresting opening lines, and this one pulls no punches in its description of the dying King George III. It’s from a poem titled ‘England in 1819’, which Shelley wrote in response to events of that year, including the Peterloo Massacre which greatly angered him. The sonnet begins:
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow …
‘I met a traveller from an antique land’.
This is the first of two classic quotations from one of Shelley’s best-known and most widely studied poems: the sonnet ‘Ozymandias’, inspired by Rameses II, the Egyptian pharaoh, which was published in The Examiner in January 1818. Curiously, this poem was the result of a poetry competition between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith.
These are the most famous lines from ‘Ozymandias’, and among the most famous quotations in all of Shelley’s work. The words form the inscription found on the remains of the statue of the long-dead emperor: all that survives of his once-great civilisation.
The inscription turns out, then, in hindsight, to be ironic: Ozymandias was the Greek name for Rameses II, the Egyptian ruler, whose empire crumbled to dust long ago. We should ‘despair’ when looking on his ‘works’ because they have not lasted: nothing does.
‘Hail to thee, blithe spirit!’
Another of Shelley’s well-known opening lines, this one is from ‘To a Skylark’. Shelley begins his celebrated ode by addressing the skylark directly, calling it a ‘blithe’ or carefree ‘Spirit’ rather than a bird as such, because the skylark appears to have come ‘from Heaven’:
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
‘Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.’
Also from ‘To a Skylark’. Humans dwell on the past or worry about the future, longing for things which do not exist. Even our laughter is ‘fraught’ with pain, and, in a famous quotation that has become well-known to people who have never read the poem, our sweetest songs are the ones that spring from the saddest thoughts.
‘If winter comes, can spring be far behind?’
As well as having a gift for arresting opening lines to poems, Shelley could also conclude his poems in style, and this is one of his best closing lines, from another of his great odes. This time, it’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, from 1819.
In the closing line of the poem, Shelley returns to the earlier image of the poem involving the west wind scattering the dead leaves to pave the way for the new trees next spring; the poem ends on a resounding note of hope for what the future could bring – for Shelley, nature, and for the political world.
‘Nought may endure but Mutability.’
Here’s a great paradox which calls the teachings of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus: namely, that nothing is permanent except change.
Shelley’s take on this idea comes from his poem ‘Mutability’, which is about the change and flux of the natural – and human – world:
It is the same! — For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.
‘I weep for Adonais — he is dead!’
When Shelley’s fellow Romantic poet John Keats died aged just 25 in 1821, Shelley wrote a long and moving elegy for his friend. ‘Adonais’ comprises 55 Spenserian stanzas (which each comprise nine lines). Shelley wrote the elegy in the spring of 1821 immediately after hearing of Keats’s death:
I weep for Adonais — he is dead!
O, weep for Adonais! though our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!
‘Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.’
Let’s conclude this pick of Percy Shelley’s best quotations with a trio of lines from his most famous prose work, ‘A Defence of Poetry’. One of the most important prose works of the Romantic era, and a valuable document concerning Shelley’s own poetic approach, the essay was written in 1821 in response to an essay written by his friend, Thomas Love Peacock.
In this quotation, Shelley argues for the primacy of poetry among the arts, arguing that it records great thoughts made by great minds.
‘Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things.’
In this quotation from ‘A Defence of Poetry’, Shelley tells us that reason is logical thought, whereas imagination is the act of perceiving things, and noticing the similarities between things (here, we might think of the poet’s stock-in-trade, the metaphor and simile, which liken one thing to another).
It is through reason but also through imagination that we can identify beauty in the world, and from such a perception or realisation are great civilisations made. It follows, then, that poets are the makers of civilisation itself.
Undoubtedly the best-known quotation from Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’, this line is actually a slight modification of a sentiment Shelley had already expressed: in his earlier and even longer political essay A Philosophic View of Reform, Shelley had written: ‘Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’
But by the time he wrote ‘A Defence of Poetry’, he had come to view poets as the supreme lawmakers and legislators of the world, as the full quotation makes clear:
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.