Literature has always been a reflection of the society and times in which it was written. The philosophical, social, and political ideologies of the day often permeate the written word, creating a synthesis of art and thought that remains for posterity. Few poets embodied this intertwining of literature and philosophy as fervently as Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley, one of the leading figures of the Romantic movement, was profoundly influenced by the intellectual currents of his time, drawing inspiration from a range of thinkers, notably William Godwin, Plato, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
William Godwin, an English political philosopher and novelist, was perhaps the most immediate influence on Shelley, not only due to his groundbreaking treatise, “Political Justice,” but also because Shelley married Godwin’s daughter, Mary, who later wrote “Frankenstein.” Godwin’s views on political justice, individual freedom, and the corrupting nature of governmental institutions deeply resonated with Shelley.
In “Political Justice,” Godwin propounded the idea that humanity could evolve and better itself through reason and education. He believed that it was social institutions that corrupted individuals, not some inherent evil nature. This resonated in Shelley’s poetry, especially in works like “Queen Mab,” where Shelley echoes Godwin’s optimism for humanity’s potential to outgrow its vices.
Shelley’s relationship with Godwin was multifaceted. While he revered Godwin’s intellectual prowess and agreed with many of his philosophical tenets, he also, at times, found himself at odds, particularly when it came to matters of love and personal freedom. Despite their occasional disagreements, Godwin’s advocacy for rationalism, anarchy, and utilitarian ethics had a profound influence on shaping Shelley’s political and moral views.
The ancient world had a deep allure for many Romantic poets, and Shelley was no exception. He was particularly taken by Plato’s philosophy. The Platonist idea of a world of ideals or Forms, more real than the world of sensory experience, aligns seamlessly with the Romantic belief in a transcendent truth beyond mundane reality.
Shelley’s poem “Adonais,” an elegy for John Keats, is steeped in Platonic imagery. The poet mourns the death of Keats but eventually finds solace in the Platonic idea of the immortal soul, suggesting that while the body may decay, the soul, or the essence of a person, is eternal and indestructible.
Moreover, in his essay “A Defence of Poetry,” Shelley argues that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” This notion that poets have a unique insight into truth and the power to influence society mirrors Plato’s idea in “The Republic” that poets have a crucial role in shaping the moral fabric of the ideal state.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a central figure of the Enlightenment, was another significant influence on Shelley. Rousseau’s discourse on the natural goodness of humanity and the corrupting influence of society found a kindred spirit in Shelley. Both thinkers believed in the inherent nobility of the human spirit, which is often stifled by the structures of civilization.
In “The Revolt of Islam,” Shelley illustrates the theme of the inherent purity of humanity, echoing Rousseau’s idea of the “noble savage” — a person uncorrupted by the conventions of society. Rousseau’s belief in the primacy of emotions and the importance of nature also finds echoes in Shelley’s work, epitomizing the Romantic era’s celebration of feeling over reason and nature over artifice.
Rousseau’s “Confessions” also had a notable impact on Shelley’s personal writings. The raw emotional intensity and self-exploratory nature of Rousseau’s autobiographical work can be seen as a precursor to Shelley’s own introspective musings in his letters and journals.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, with his fiery passion for justice and beauty, absorbed the philosophical musings of his predecessors and contemporaries, weaving them seamlessly into his poetic creations. The revolutionary optimism of Godwin, the transcendental ideals of Plato, and the natural romanticism of Rousseau coalesced in Shelley’s works, providing them with intellectual depth and emotional resonance.
Shelley’s poetry is a testament to the timeless nature of philosophical discourse. While the world has changed in innumerable ways since the times of Godwin, Plato, Rousseau, and Shelley, the questions they grappled with — about human nature, society, justice, and beauty — remain as pertinent today as they were then. Through the lens of Shelley’s poetry, we see not just the reflections of these great thinkers but a vision of a world that might be, a world where humanity realizes its true potential.