“If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley was a century-and-a-half too early. Futuristic Shelley, the first modern artist: prolific, prophetic, and torn from us far too soon. Dead at 29, Shelley, more even than Lord Byron himself, was the proto rock star. In life, in work and in death he exuded rebellion, confronted and subverted social mores, and brought forth radical ideas still distant. Ideas of non-violent resistance, vegetarianism and free love are all concepts still unacceptable to many even today: Shelley was far more shocking, challenging God and State, the very foundations of society. Poor Shelley, and poor us. For we need him now. We need him and his atheism now more than ever before… his particular brand of atheism, that is. Shelley’s was a deeply spiritual, heathen atheism – in constant celebration of the natural world, in constant rejection of the God as Overlord. His works teemed with thoughts more easily suited to essays, instead therein taking the form of ecstatic epic lyric poetry. He demanded that his poems be read with the seriousness of political tract. Portentously, Shelley himself declared that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
Shelley hums with discontent. He was the black cloud of objection who foresaw a coming storm of civil unrest still near two centuries away. He’s not just proto-rock star: he was proto-Transcendentalist, proto-Beatnik, proto-Peace Activist. The futuristic mindsets that Percy Shelley played with anticipated by scores of years the duty-bound defiance of Henry David Thoreau, and the martyr-like non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. And yet his unparalleled high idealism ensured that Shelley was never a mere naysayer: he offered an entirely new way, replete with alternatives. For all his criticisms of this unjust world, he wrote in equal measure of its astonishing beauties. Moved to his very core by certain other poets and artists, Shelley celebrated and mythologised them as heroes, proffering them to the wider world, holding them aloft as rich evidence of other exotics whose parallel visions of the earth vindicated the extreme manner in which he viewed life. And so, on this the second day of the SydArthur Festival – wherein we seek to celebrate volcanic minds – let’s honour Shelley in that same exultant spirit that he would honour others.
Today let’s seek out Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. Never has the traditional romantic purpose of a sonnet been so successfully hijacked for the declaring of radical ideas.