Every schoolchild knows that Shelley was an atheist, and usually the knowledge stops there. He and a friend, the radically named Thomas Jefferson Hogg, were expelled from Oxford for writing The Necessity of Atheism. This book is much tamer than its title suggests, its strongest rhetoric arguing the necessity of being able to argue even about God. Shelley's antagonism towards established Christianity arose primarily from his opposition to the institution of marriage. He believed that it was immoral for a man and woman who had ceased to love each other to remain married, and he thought that Christianity had from its earliest times emphasized the perils of sin over the rewards oflove.
Three poems, Prometheus Unbound, "Mont Blanc," and "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" best present his philosophical and religious beliefs. Did Prometheus appear in a work by any other writer, his self-sacrifice and his intercession before the gods on behalf of man would make him a Christ figure. "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" has obvious parallels in Wordsworth's "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality," Coleridge's "Dejection," and Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," but differs from them primarily in Shelley's assumption of the existence of an "unseen power," the "Spirit of Beauty" whose light alone "gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream."
"Mont Blanc" (text)also places us at once within "the everlasting universe of things" and within the mind. The challenge which this poem presents is the difficulty of grasping Shelley's idea. It is a mistake to seize on the similarities to other philosophies, especially Plato's and to conclude that he meant simply to illustrate a philosophic concept. The most intelligent approach assumes that Shelley expressed his idea in poetry because he conceived it that way, and that his rhetorical devices are never mere decoration: this abstract unseen power can only be understood through the similes he draws to the Arve's physical power. Can you discover the closest relatives of this poem among the work of the other Romantic writers? (You might start with "Tintern Abbey.")
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000