Percy Shelley is known to modern anarchists, if he is known at all, by a few
lines from “The Mask of Anarchy”, a political poem he penned after the
Peterloo Massacre of 1819, when cavalry attacked a large crowd demanding the
reform of the Parliamentary system. This poem, surging with the righteous anger
of a peace-loving poet, contains a refrain sung (as if) by the Earth to her
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to Earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.
These lines notwithstanding, Shelley tended to avoid, especially in his longer
poems, explicitly engaging with politics. It is not that he was uninterested in
ideas of a radical, or even anarchist, sort. When Shelley was eighteen years
old, and a promising young scholar at Oxford, he published a pamphlet entitled
“The Necessity of Atheism” and sent it to the heads of each of the colleges of
Oxford. For this rebellion he was promptly expelled from the institution, whose
charter at that time still restricted enrollment to Christians. Upon his
expulsion, he sought out other radicals and wrote to William Godwin, whose
Inquiry Concerning Political Justice Shelly had read. The central
thesis of Godwin’s lengthy book was the necessity of abolishing government, and
it can be considered the first articulation of anarchism (without the word) in
the Western canon.
Shelley also became acquainted with one of Godwin’s daughters, Mary
Wollstonecraft Godwin, with whom he would develop a romance, and who would
later go on to pen the most well-known text of this unusual family of writers,
Frankenstein, as well as with the writing of the late Mary
Wollstonecraft, who published one of the first Western defenses of feminism, “A
Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Percy and the young Mary read
Wollstonecraft’s words to each other as they traveled.
Percy’s radical ideas are also conveyed in his poetry, as we shall see, as a
critique of hierarchy, government, religion, and commerce. Yet for the most
part, Shelley’s project differed from that of Godwin or Wollstonecraft. His
major written contribution was to develop a thoroughly radical metaphysics. The
subtitle of his first major work, Queen Mab, for example, is “A
Philosophical Poem.” Its themes include death and sleep, imagination and
spirit. The metaphysical bent to his poetry should not surprise us in light of
atheism being the subject of his great act of rebellion at Oxford, as well as
the relative power of Christianity in his day.
Thanks to Shelley’s relation to Godwin, Wollstonecraft and other radicals, as
well as his lucid expression of anarchist principles, we believe it is not out
of bounds to read his philosophical poetry as one of the very few thorough
articulations of an anarchist metaphysics. We might take the gap between
Shelley’s metaphysics and Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s politics as an invitation
to consider this dichotomy. What constitutes anarchist thought in the political
sphere is a matter of contention, but outside of the political sphere—in
metaphysics for instance—one might wonder whether or not anarchist thought can
be spoken of at all. While it is outside the scope of this essay to address
this question directly, our engagement with Shelley will presuppose an interest
in anarchy as it departs from the political and, indeed, from the sphere of
human society entirely, pursuing far stranger, even extraterrestrial,
Not Human Sense, Not Human Mind
Queen Mab is Shelley’s first major work and also his most aspiring,
written mere months after “Necessity of Atheism.” It mainly consists of a
speech delivered by Mab, the Fairy Queen, to a human spirit which Mab has
whisked away from the sleeping body of Ianthe and brought to look upon the
universe from atop her celestial palace. Shelley’s cosmology as told by Mab is
an ambitious attempt to leave unsettled no question of universal principle,
natural law, human behavior, time, or nearly any philosophical mystery. The
Fairy Queen declares that she holds all the secrets of the human world, and
before she begins her great discourse, promises Ianthe’s spirit that “the past
shall rise; / Thou shalt behold the present; I will teach / The secrets of the
future.” (II, 65–67)
In Mab, Shelley’s task is to negate God’s existence or, as his
epigraph from Voltaire puts it, “ecrasez l’infame!”—crush the demon! Shelley
makes his attack by expounding a radical determinism. As in the title of his
pamphlet on atheism, the name he uses to signify both the nonexistence of God
and the underlying principle of the universe is Necessity. Necessity
here refers to the inevitable chain of causation that denies religion and God.
From Shelley’s own note on Mab:
He who asserts the doctrine of Necessity, means that,... he beholds only an
immense and uninterrupted chain of causes and effects.... The doctrine of
Necessity tends to introduce a great change into the established notions of
morality, and utterly to destroy religion.... There is neither good nor evil in
the universe, otherwise than as the events to which we apply those epithets
have in relation to our own peculiar mode of being.
Defying the Christian doctrine of free will, Shelley claims that freedom is
nothing but a lack of knowledge of what must happen by Necessity. Yet
Mab is not what one might expect from a philosophical mind that views
every event in history and every human emotion or thought as “a link / In the
great chain of Nature” (II, 107–8). It is not what one might call purely
scientific or rationalist. It is a poem starring a fairy and a disembodied
spirit traveling through space on a chariot pulled by celestial horses. Even
more, Mab is an ode to an atheism informed by imagination and fancy.
Shelley’s appreciation of the imagination goes beyond mere positive association
with poetry. In Mab, human fancy is the explicit vehicle for reaching
the perspective through which the poem’s philosophical content is delivered.
This is illustrated well by the poem’s opening lines, a musing on the relation
of sleep and death while the narrator looks on the sleeping form of Ianthe.
This part suggests that the entire narrative takes place neither in reality nor
in Ianthe’s sleeping mind but rather in the imagination of the narrator as he
watches her sleep. The imaginative nature of the space journey is illuminated
even more by the interlude once Mab and Ianthe reach the palace:
If solitude hath ever led thy steps
To the wild ocean’s echoing shore,
And thou hast lingered there,
Until the sun’s broad orb
Seemed resting on the burnished wave,
Thou must have marked the lines
Of purple gold, that motionless
Hung o’er the sinking sphere:
Then has thy fancy soared above the earth,
And furled its wearied wing
Within the Fairy’s fane.
How can Shelley’s atheist position be reached by watching the sunset? The
sunset is one of the rare instances when the human imagination is able to watch
(in real time, one might say) the earth and sun in motion through the immensity
of space and catch a hint of the tremendous scale of the universe, in which
humans are tiny and adrift. We should think of this as the perspective from
which Mab gives her speech. This also explains how the scientific method is
useful to Shelley’s project in spite of his poetic and fanciful approach: much
like the view of a setting sun, the view through a telescope helps one imagine
the scale of the universe and grasp the folly of religious belief. Shelley is
explicit about the connection between scale and atheism in his note to the
description of Mab and Ianthe’s travel through space to the fairy palace:
The plurality of worlds,—the indefinite immensity of the universe is a most
awful subject of contemplation. He who rightly feels its mystery and grandeur,
is in no danger of seduction from the falshoods of religious systems, or of
deifying the principle of the universe.
By the falsehood of religion Shelley means that humans, out of ignorance and
vanity, have created God in their own image to encapsulate everything they do
not understand. The precondition for the error of religion is awe: a
theme Shelley will dwell on throughout his poetry. There are various ways
people deal with an experience of awe: fear, forgetfulness, nostalgia,
reverence. For Shelley, religion is born when the nameless unknown that gives
rise to awe is abstracted and given a name. Then all the real or desired human
qualities are projected onto the religious entity, and people believe they
themselves can be eternal like their gods. They build monuments and temples as
testaments to the supposed universality of their religions. But Mab will show
how foolish this is. Once Ianthe and Mab reach the battlements of the palace
and look out over the vastness of space, capable of seeing everything at
universal scale from the perspective of soaring fancy, they can see the
futility of human civilization and its attempts at immortality. As they look on
the ruins of an ancient civilization, Mab asks:
What is immortal there?
Nothing—it stands to tell
A melancholy tale, to give
An awful warning: soon
Oblivion will steal silently
The remnant of its fame.
Monarchs and conquerors there
Proud o’er prostrate millions trod—
The earthquakes of the human race;
Like them, forgotten when the ruin
That marks their shock is past.
The greatest monuments to human pride6(end) are insignificant and transitory next to
the vast harmonic wilderness of space, the only “fitting temple” to the Spirit
of Nature (I, 264–8). But it is not just because of their vanity and folly that
Shelly attacks religion and state. The monuments to human pride, destined only
to fall into ruin, are built at the cost of human suffering:
Oh! many a widow, many an orphan cursed
The building of that fane; and many a father,
Worn out with toil and slavery, implored
The poor man’s God to sweep it from the earth,
And spare his children the detested task
Of piling stone on stone, and poisoning
The choicest days of life,
To soothe a dotard’s vanity.
Not even the rulers are free from this suffering. Shelley describes at length
the despair of the King, bound by his own golden chains and incapable of
experiencing the very peace for which he built his tremendous palaces and
temples, but which does not care for human monuments and does not visit him
because his heart is without virtue.
Mab declares that human hierarchy has no parallel in nature, whose spirit is
spread equally through every being, and promises that all human authority “Will
lose its power to dazzle; its authority / Will silently pass by” (III, 133–4).
Shelley’s hope, much like Godwin’s, is that increased human knowledge must
cause them to abandon government and religion, while their capacity for
virtuous action will also grow. To this end, several of Queen Mab’s cantos
discuss themes of an anarchist nature, seeking to illuminate the evils of
hierarchy as it manifests in government, religion, war, and commerce.
In another canto, Shelley is more explicit about his assertion that religion
develops through people’s urge to give names to what they do not know or
understand. Using the metaphor of the development of a human from childhood to
old age, he walks through the stages of religious belief. To the child, all the
aspects of nature are gods: the stars, trees, clouds, mountain, sun, and moon.
The adolescent turns to deify spirits, ghosts and other forces. Then man, his
pride mocked by the unknown wonders around him, takes all of these and all of
their causes, and makes them converge upon a single abstract point, which he
The self-sufficing, the omnipotent,
The merciful, and the avenging God!
Who, prototype of human misrule, sits
High in heaven’s realm, upon a golden throne,
Even like an earthly king; and whose dread work,
Hell, gapes for ever for the unhappy slaves
Of fate, whom he created, in his sport,
To triumph in their torments when they fell!
Finally, in his last years, man’s decaying religion requires more gods (we can
presume Shelley is thinking of Christianity’s trinity). This sense that
religion has reached a stage of decay is one of the reasons Shelley feels hope
and the certainty that those who champion truth will overcome the terrible
falsehood that dominates human thought.
Even though Shelley praises the Spirit of Nature, he is clear to point out that
this entity has absolutely no concern for human flattery:
Spirit of Nature! all-sufficing Power,
Necessity! thou mother of the world!
Unlike the God of human error, thou
Requirest no prayers or praises; the caprice
Of man’s weak will belongs no more to thee
Than do the changeful passions of his breast
To thy unvarying harmony...
Also worth noting in this passage are Shelley’s four different names for the
same underlying principle of the universe, an indication that he finds no
fitting name for it, and chooses his words for their allusive power. The names
“Spirit of Nature” and “Power” (capitalized and with differing adjectives) will
reappear in his later works. Necessity, however, falls out of its favored
place, possibly because it indicates a strict order to nature that Shelley will
begin to question. Finally, “mother of the world,” the most anthropomorphic of
the group. This last term will reappear, though with an added layer of
uncertainty, in Alastor, and then is discarded. Shelley’s abandonment
of this term coincides with his assertion that the principle of the universe is
utterly inhuman and indifferent to humanity, as in this passage also from
...all that the wide world contains
Are but thy passive instruments, and thou
Regardst them all with an impartial eye,
Whose joy or pain thy nature cannot feel,
Because thou hast not human sense,
Because thou art not human mind.
It is this appreciation of the infinite apathy of the universe that makes
Shelley’s metaphysics interesting to us. There is no doubt his appreciation
goes alongside a tendency to romanticize this same principle, especially in
Mab. When he refers to it as “mother of the world,” he has gone far
enough down this path that many will be able to recognize a radicalism they can
relate to—after all, there had been a tremendous campaign of murder aimed in
large part at annihilating the feminine divine in Europe for centuries leading
up to this poem, and this fact alone could have persuaded Shelley into
believing, as he did, that Mab was too radical for his own safety. But
to our minds this is a reactive form of engagement that, while always having
been part of radicalism, fails to interest us. If Shelley had only declared the
principle of the universe to be a feminine, we would not bother to engage with
him here. As we will see, however, Shelley’s metaphysics is much more
interesting. It is an atheism full of fancy and wonder, reticent to impose
human limits on the underlying principle of the universe, that denies every
category and name imposed on the great unknown.
Lift Not the Painted Veil
As much as Shelley sings of the mystery and unknowability of the universal
principle in Queen Mab, in his zeal to reveal the falsehood of
religion and hierarchy he does pass into the same sort of error (albeit more
cautiously, and self-consciously) that he accuses religion of. For evidence of
this, one could simply point to the fact that so much of Queen Mab is
a long speech that claims to make known the truths of the universe. These
truths, moreover, are supposed to come from a fairy entity whose knowledge is
far beyond human thought and whose perspective is much closer to the Spirit of
Nature itself. But one might note, more specifically, Shelley’s unshaken faith
in Necessity, his certainty that every motion and event throughout space and
time are untouched by chance or will, that they are nothing other than the
fulfillment of natural law. We shall see that Shelley’s certainty about this
will not long remain unshaken.
One way to read Shelley’s philosophical poetry after Mab is that he
draws the veil of mystery over the unseen power to which he had put name, face,
and human emotion. An aspect of this retraction is his strange blurring and
erasure of the gendered marks he had at first placed upon the Spirit of Nature.
This obscuration can be read as merely incidental, since it is only one of the
anthropomorphisms Shelley projected on this inhuman principle and later saw fit
to withdraw. And, indeed, in a different world and a different political
context, we might pay no special attention to the issue of gender in Shelley’s
work. Then, however, as now, the gendering of the divine was not merely a
side-issue but was (and is) instead a battleground for various social and
political struggles. Just as we cannot pretend Shelley, fully involved in the radicalism of his day, was ignorant of the political significance of gender
especially as it might relate to the divine, neither can we dismiss the
importance of this subject to many of our contemporaries. For this reason, we
are excited to find in Shelley someone touched by the desire to recast images
of divinity in inverted forms radical enough to warrant death, but who also
felt that this fell into the same error as what it opposed.
In Alastor, or, The Spirit of Solitude, Shelley’s next major work
after Mab, the veil he had pushed aside now reappears to shroud the
truth with mystery. While before, an inviting Fairy Queen took the stage and
spoke openly all the secrets of the universe, now the poem’s protagonist, a
poet who wanders the world in search of ultimate truths, is driven to despair
because he sees those secrets flee from him.
Where Ianthe had dreamed a Fairy Queen who flung open the door to knowledge,
now the poet dreams of a veiled figure, and though she speaks to him of
“knowledge and truth and virtue,” Shelley does not recount her speech. We do
not learn what she said, only that when the poet catches a glimpse of her face
and limbs behind the veil he falls madly in love with her, only to see the
vision disappear as he wakes.
Desperate for her return and unable to find her in sleep, the poet decides that
death will bring him what sleep cannot.10(end) Prepared to die, he sails alone into
the sea during a storm. It is in the midst of this storm that we find an
intriguing indication of Shelley’s changing perspective on causation and
certainty. While in Mab every motion of every particle in the universe
was determined by nature’s law, and chance was just a word for human ignorance,
the climactic moment of Alastor is described with a tone of
uncertainty and chaos. The poet has been dragged about the sea in his boat and
now hangs on the edge of a whirlpool. The outcome and even the question of what
will happen are not framed as we would expect from a strict determinist:
...the boat paused shuddering.—Shall it sink
Down the abyss? Shall the reverting stress
Of that resistless gulph embosom it?
Now shall it fall?—A wandering stream of wind,
Breathed from the west, has caught the expanded sail,
And, lo! with gentle motion, between banks
Of mossy slope, and on a placid stream,
Beneath a woven grove it sails...
In Shelley’s universe, which was perfect harmony and necessity in Mab,
there is now a little room for chance and chaos. What’s more, Shelley has
stepped back from his own claims at knowledge. In the opening lines to
Alastor, he again refers to the world’s source in the feminine, but
this time he says “Mother of this unfathomable world” (18, emphasis
added). Shelley’s tendency to speak of the unknowable, the unfathomable, and
the uncertain will only multiply from here.
Alastor can even be read as a warning that the zeal to know the
secrets of the universe (as exemplified by the poet) will lead to social
isolation and escapism from the world. The remainder of the poem consists of
the poet’s long solitary journey to his death upon a mountaintop. At the end,
Alastor sings the tragedy of the one who seeks to uncover the mysteries of the
unfathomable and, carried by this impossible task, is lost to the world.12(end)
The closing lines of Alastor:
It is a woe too “deep for tears,” when all
Is reft at once, when some surpassing Spirit,
Whose light adorned the world around it, leaves
Those who remain behind, not sobs or groans,
The passionate tumult of a clinging hope;
But pale despair and cold tranquility,
Nature’s vast frame, the web of human things,
Birth and the grave, that are not as they were.
The poem is not moralistic enough to be a warning, however. What it conveys
instead is the kind of awful beauty that characterizes the great tragedies of
the Greeks (attuned, like Shelley, to the power of their Fates). This very
word, awful, which Shelley uses often, may convey Shelley’s strange attitude
toward the universe. In the early 19th century when Shelley was writing, the
meaning of ‘awful’ was in a transition from its older sense of evoking wonder
and awe to its modern sense of very bad or horrifying. Perhaps at the cusp of
these two senses we can intuit a meaning of the term that verges on the odd
combination of awe, fear, and terror entailed by Shelley’s worldview.
There is tragedy in Alastor’s parting lines above, as well as in the
description of the lonely peak and solitary pine that frame the place of the
poet’s death. For example, the description of the pine on which the poet places
his hand before he lays down to die conveys the quality that accrues to those
whose passions lead them to seek the peaks and who endure harsh conditions and
solitude. There is an undeniable loveliness and tranquility to the setting and
experience of the poet’s death, and a tragic inevitability to the departure of
the brightest flames from a world too dim for them. What Shelley does seem to
warn against in Alastor is not the search for truth, even if it leads
to solitude and death, but instead the belief that the universe can be fully
fathomed and its mystery captured in an enduring image.
Darkness to a Dying Flame
After Alastor, Shelley’s characterization of the universe and its
underlying principle tends still further toward uncertainty and unknowability.
The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty is an ode to an “unseen Power,” but
more often than not it is addressed to that power’s “awful shadow,” a shadow
which “Floats though unseen among us” (1–2). One gets the sense now that
there are layers of mystery and shadow between ourselves and truth, as not only
is its shadow with us, but even that shadow goes unseen. But the unseen power’s
mystery, Shelley declares, makes it all the more dear to us.
Though the Spirit of Beauty visits the world, its presence is fleeting and it
leaves “This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate.” In an attempt to
overcome their worldly sorrow, people create “the name of God and ghosts and
Heaven,” trying to lend clarity to a power they are ignorant of. But these
names, Shelley claims, are unable “to sever, / From all we hear and all we see,
/ Doubt, chance and mutability” (29–31).
Here, not only does Shelley seem to have abandoned his prior belief in the
absolute certainty of the universe, he accuses religion of attempting to
eliminate change and uncertainty from the world. Indeed, mutability is now one
of the ways he names the underlying principle of the universe, as in the poem
entitled Mutability which he wrote just before the Hymn. This
principle goes by many names in the Hymn—“unseen Power” (1), “Spirit
of beauty” (13), “awful loveliness” (71), “spirit fair” (83) (Shelley uses each
of these only once)—and even more metaphors, each evoking mystery and the
unknown. One of these metaphors deserves particular mention:
Thou—that to human thought art nourishment
Like darkness to a dying flame!
Here human thought is not created or sustained by an entity in any way familiar
or alike to it. Human thought is instead a burning, dying force surrounded by
the darkness of everything it finds mysterious and unknown. If it exists, it is
by the stark contrast of this vast, encompassing alienness. If it endures, it
is because it is filled with wonder and desire by the mystery that surrounds
it. Human thought burns, dying, against the darkness of what it does not know.
Shelley will again speak of the mysterious power as the source of human thought
in Mont Blanc, this time through the metaphor of the streams of water
that descend from the mountain much as human thought descends from “secret
springs” (4). Mont Blanc, in line with the “darkness to a dying flame”
in the Hymn, is an ode to silence. Shelley concludes the brief ode
with these lines:
... The secret strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
As Shelley’s appreciation of mystery, darkness and silence grow, his metaphors
and names for the principle of the universe grow more mysterious, dark and
inhuman. Abandoning the name of “mother,” he evokes the power through the
darkness in the Hymn and the silent, solitary mountain in Mont
Blanc. The power still gives rise to the universe, not in any birth-like
generation, and it nourishes human thought, but without the human emotion and
bond that the name of mother would suggest. Its absence and its mystery are
what feed the dying flame of human thought, burning against the darkness.
6. Mab’s speech on human pride is quite illustrative of Shelley’s animist thought:
How strange is human pride!
I tell thee that those living things,
To whom the fragile blade of grass,
That springeth in the morn
And perisheth ere noon,
Is an unbounded world;
I tell thee that those viewless beings,
Whose mansion is the smallest particle
Of the impassive atmosphere,
Think, feel and live like man;
That their affections and antipathies,
Like his, produce the laws
Ruling their mortal state
10. This theme echoes the introductory ode from Queen Mab:
How wonderful is Death,
Death and his brother Sleep!
One, pale as yonder waning moon
With lips of lurid blue;
The other, rosy as the morn
When throned on ocean’s wave
It blushes o’er the world:
Yet both so passing wonderful!
12. The tragedy of the brightest ones being lost to the world recurs in
Shelley’s writing, no doubt because he identifies with these tragic figures who
seek truth and knowledge beyond all else. In a later (untitled) sonnet he
condenses much of the spirit of Alastor into a few lines:
Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life; though unreal shapes be pictured there
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colors idly spread,—behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies, who ever weave
Their shadows o’er the chasm, sightless and drear,
I knew one who had lifted it .... he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love
But found them not, alas; nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve.
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendor among shadows—a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene—a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher, found it not.—
 Shelley’s usage of ‘Anarchy’ in the title and the body of the poem does not
refer his own ideal but to the Chaos which spreads death across the land. That
the Anarchy of the poem is essentially the opposite of the ideal shared by
Shelley and those who have later called themselves anarchists is demonstrated
by how the soldiers, lawyers, and priests greet him: “Thou art King, and God,
and Lord; / Anarchy, to Thee we bow, / Be thy name made holy now!”
 The first three words of this refrain have recently been adopted as the
name of an anarchist publishing project in the northwest region of the United
States as well as the title of a documentary film about the Occupy Movement.
 After she took the surname Shelley from Percy himself. Percy being the
subject of this essay, we will use their shared surname to refer solely to him.
 Mary Shelley, who was closely acquainted with these ideas as they existed
in the political sphere of her parents and the metaphysical sphere of her
lover, can be read as interweaving, in Frankenstein, anarchic thought
between these spheres. The interweaving of metaphysics with the issues of
present society is indeed a fitting definition of science fiction, the genre
that Mary Shelley is credited with pioneering in Frankenstein. Mary
Shelley is not the subject of this essay, but parties intrigued by the topic
may be interested in reading her in this light.
 Shelley does invoke the term again in Laon and Cynthia or, The
Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century (which
he later retitled The Revolt of Islam). This poem describes the rise
and fall of a fleeting uprising, and studies the errors that lead to the
reimposition of order.
 Shelley had the text printed in his name and then distributed about seventy
copies to persons he felt relatively unthreatened by, but only after cutting
out his name and address from the text, usually removing his opening dedication
of the poem to his then-wife Harriet as well.
 We will only make passing reference to two phenomena: first, the rise of
monotheism, synonymous with the exclusive masculinity of God, and with the mass
devastation of those accused of worshiping a Goddess or goddesses; and second,
the counter-movement of recent decades focusing largely on the revival of the
concept of divine femininity.
 Oddly enough, Shelley would himself die, several years later, in a storm at sea.