Percy Bysshe Shelley--Cycle of Vision

Part II: The Cycle of Vision

by guest contributor Donald Naggie

Edited by LA Jamison

This is the second part of a three part series by Don Naggie, Masters in the Art of Literature and teacher.

There are some critics who have maintained that there is an arc to Shelley’s poetry. He first finds his poetic voice in the depths of despair. From there he crawls out into a new visionary hope for humanity. This vision though is ultimately crushed and his last great poem is argued by many to be one of the bleakest visions in all of English poetry. 

Shelley began as an atheist and revolutionary, but did not come into his own as a poet until his revolutionary hopes began to wane. While on one of his campaigns to stir up a popular revolt, he suspected that he was being trailed by an assassin. It has never been ascertained who the visitor was that Shelley encountered that night, but the shock of the encounter, combined with his own irrational fears that he was dying of tuberculosis, inspired his first great poem, Alastor. The poem is a continuation of a mode that Harold Bloom termed “the internalization of quest romance.” In this mode the poet has so internalized all the traditional workings of romance that it has become a purely mental quest. In Alastor a figure, named “the Poet,” goes out on a quest to find the embodiment of all he desires. After a long and fruitless search, the poet dies alone and in despair. 

Later in life Shelley would travel the route to Switzerland made by his idol, Jacques Rousseau. Stopping at Mont Blanc, Shelley found the poetic material that would give birth to many of his greatest poems. In “Mont Blanc” the poet is questing after what could be called the absolute as well as the relationship between the mind and the physical world. One always runs the risk reductionism when trying to explain a great poem. So with caution, I would suggest that the poem Mont Blanc is concerned with discovering the power the imagination has over the world of things. The poem ultimately affirms the power of the imagination to change the world for good. This hope would allow Shelley to go on to write the Ode to the West Wind and Prometheus Unbound. 

There is a debate about the remaining contour of Shelley’s life. Some critics argue that he eventually despaired and that his wreck at sea may have been a kind of suicide. Others believe that he never abandoned his optimistic hope. His final poem, a unfinished fragment called “The Triumph of Life,” is inconclusive. It has been convincingly argued that the poem may have been finished on a hopeful note. What remains though is so bleak though that critics who believe Shelley had ultimately despaired have their own justification. If Shelley lost hope in the redemptive powers of the imagination nonetheless, his final poems exhibit him at the height of his imaginative powers. The final lyrics remain amongst the greatest lyrics in the English language.