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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: September 2009

4 - Shelley and the politics of political poetry


Criticism of Shelley has long revolved around questions about the relationship between his poetry and his politics. One strand of Shelley's reception history reflects a poet whose ideas inspired generations of political activists. Shelley's early poem Queen Mab, for example, served as a kind of bible for British radicals. For numerous commentators, however, Shelley's political thought has been something of an embarrassment, evidence of the kind of arrested development that prompted T. S. Eliot to observe that “the ideas of Shelley seem to me always to be ideas of adolescence.” Eliot's judgment stands in a long line of complaints about the immaturity and incoherence of Shelley's thought and reflects an ongoing effort to save Shelley the brilliant lyric poet from Shelley the thinker. If recent critics have attempted to provide better explanations of the relevance of Shelley's politics to his poetry, they have done so largely in the context of the perceived opposition between them. Even those critics who have insisted on the coherence and importance of Shelley's political thinking have had to contend with Shelley's own movement away from the unequivocal radicalism of Queen Mab to the rarified abstraction of Prometheus Unbound.

Commenting on the renewed interest in Shelley's radicalism, William Keach has argued that Shelley's cultivation of distance from any practical politics is in fact the most distinctive and most enduring feature of his political imagination. “Radical Shelley,” Keach concludes, “keeps his distance from the assumptions and instincts of those he continues to inspire.”

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