Shelley was no idle songster, singing for singing’s sake. He was an ardent
philanthropist who wished to rouse a soporific world from its moral stupor. In “Ode to the West
Wind,” he voiced his messianic aspirations:
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
A visionary anarchist, he decried the enslavement of the mind by church, state,
law, custom, and tradition. He inveighed against priests, kings, soldiers, magistrates, and other
wielders of institutional authority. In Prometheus Unbound, he envisions an autonomous race
unshackled by external coercions and mind-forged manacles:
The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself; just, gentle, wise.
Despite his invective against organized oppression, Shelley spurned violent
modes of redress. True emancipation, he believed, ensues from the cultivation of tolerance,
fairness, benevolence, honesty, austerity, temperance, and unfettered discussion, not from armed
revolt. Like Socrates, he thought knowledge begets virtue because nobody is wittingly iniquitous.
Shelley’s exhortations were ignored when not derided. A scorned prophet, he
was fitfully despondent: “I have,” he confided to his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, “sunk into
a premature old age of exhaustion, which renders me dead to everything, but the unenviable capacity
of indulging the vanity of hope.” A half century later, Matthew Arnold limned Shelley as a “beautiful
and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.”
Few, in his own day, reckoned Shelley an angel. He was the notorious apostle of
atheism, an affront to God and man. His nefarious reputation sprouted early with the The
Necessity of Atheism and Queen Mab. The first, a pamphlet, was published when Shelley was
a freshman at Oxford University, from which he and Hogg, his collaborator, were expelled for “contumacious
conduct” when they declined to recant their wicked views. Queen Mab, a poem published two
years later, in 1813, contains a stinging critique of Christianity (later elaborated in Essay on
Christianity and A Refutation of Deism) and copious footnotes plumping for atheism. The
notes include a modified version of The Necessity of Atheism and skeptical passages from
Lucretius, Pliny, Bacon, Spinoza, Hume, and Holbach.
On the title page of The Necessity of Atheism, Shelley stated his
purpose and invited rebuttals:
As a love of truth is the only motive which actuates the Author of this little
tract, he earnestly entreats that those of his readers who may discover any deficiency in his
reasoning, or may be in possession of proofs which his mind could never obtain, would offer them,
together with their objections to the Public, as briefly, as methodically, as plainly as he has
taken the liberty of doing. Thro’ deficiency of proof, AN ATHEIST.
Shelley sent copies of the privately printed work to Oxford dons, clergymen,
and his father. The remaining copies were burned in the print shop when the printer realized he was
vulnerable to a charge of blasphemous libel. Shelley’s father, a country squire, implored his
wayward son to abjure the impious tract:
The disgrace which hangs over you is most serious, and though I have felt as a
father, and sympathized in the misfortune which your criminal opinions and improper acts have begot:
yet, you must know, that I have a duty to perform to my own character, as well as to your younger
brother and sisters. Above all, my feelings as a Christian require from me a decided and firm
conduct towards you.
Mr. Shelley issued terms for rapprochement: The son must apologize to Oxford,
seek reinstatement, “abstain from all communication with Mr. Hogg,” and place himself under the
moral tutelage “of such gentleman as I shall appoint.” Should the son reject the terms, he would
be left “to the punishment and misery that belongs to the wicked pursuit of an opinion so
diabolical and wicked as that which you have dared to declare.”
Unrepentant, Shelley juxtaposed his own fidelity to reason with the obduracy of
the Oxford dons:
A train of reasoning & not any great profligacy has induced me to disbelieve
the scriptures. We [he and Hogg] found to our surprise that the proofs of an existing Deity were, as
far as we had observed, defective. We therefore embodied our doubts on the subject & arranged
them methodically in the form of “The Necessity of Atheism,” thinking thereby to obtain a
satisfactory answer from men who had made Divinity the study of their lives. No argument was brought
forward to disprove our reasoning, & it at once demonstrated the weakness of their cause &
their inveteracy on discovering it, when they publicly expelled myself & my friend.
Shelley’s unwillingness to repudiate atheism precipitated a lasting rift
between father and son. (Shelley’s mother, as the poet noted in a letter to Hogg, was tolerant of
his atheism: She “is quite rational—she says, ‘I think prayer & thanksgiving is of no use.
If a man is a good man, atheist or Xtian, he will do very well in whatever future state awaits us.’”)
In 1814, Shelley’s infamy mushroomed when he abandoned his wife, Harriet
Westbrook, and their two children to elope with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, whom he married two
years’ later after the forlorn Harriet had drowned herself. Shelley was now ostracized throughout
England, even by friends and family. He was “a herd-abandoned deer struck by the hunter’s dart.”
His alleged turpitude was perceived as a consequence of his atheism. Robert
Southey, poet laureate of England, admonished his erstwhile protégé: “Look to that evidence [for
God] while you are yet existing in Time, and you may yet live to bless God for bringing you to a
sense of your miserable condition. I can think of you only as of an individual whom I have known,
and of whom I had once entertained high hopes.”
After Harriet’s death, Shelley was denied custody of his children. His
atheism disqualified him for parenthood. The bill in chancery stated:
And the Orators [plaintiffs] shew that the said Percy Bysshe Shelley avows
himself to be an Atheist and that since his Marriage he has written and published a certain work
called Queen Mab with notes and other works and that he has therein blasphemously derided the truth
of the Christian Revelation and denied the existence of God as the Creator of the Universe.
In critiquing his poems, reviewers substituted epithets for analysis. They branded
him “degraded, unteachable, unamiable, querulous, and unmanly.” He “perverted his ingenuity
and knowledge to the attacking of all that is ancient and venerable in our civil and religious
institutions.” He was “a hideous blasphemer” who “indited pages of raving atheism.” As
Ellsworth Barnard notes in Shelley’s Religion, the ad hominem attacks made “Shelley’s
name a byword among the majority of middle-class readers for nearly three decades after his death.”
In reality, Shelley was nothing like the bête noir of public opinion. He was
gentle, self-effacing, candid, sincere, courteous, generous, affectionate, idealistic. (He left
Harriet because he considered it immoral to live with a spouse when love had died.) In Portrait
of Shelley, the standard biography of the poet, Newman Ivy White recounts the impression of an
Englishman, William Baxter, who visited the poet in 1817, not long before Shelley moved to Italy,
where he spent his final years:
Baxter had expected to find in Shelley “an ignorant, silly, half-witted
enthusiast” with “morals that fitted him only for a brothel.” Instead he had been astonished
and delighted to find him “a being of rare genius and talent, of truly republican frugality and
plainness of manners, and of a soundness of principle and delicacy of moral tact that might put to
shame (if shame they had) many of his detractors; and, with all this so amiable that you have only
to spend half an hour in his company to convince you that there is not an atom of malevolence in his
Shelley’s tracts on religion aren’t sensational or bombastic. They are
erudite disquisitions tailored to reflective minds. They are grounded in Shelley’s voluminous
knowledge of philosophy, history, languages, literature, logic, and science. A true polymath, he was
an omnivorous, fast, and extraordinarily retentive reader. The following excerpts from A
Refutation of Deism illustrate his manner. In the first, Shelley argues that a supernatural
creator is an unnecessary hypothesis, a violation of Occam’s razor:
Design must be proved before a designer can be inferred. It is not permitted to
assume the contested premises and thence infer the matter in dispute. . . . The greatest, equally
with the smallest, motions of the Universe are subjected to the rigid necessity of inevitable laws.
These laws are the unknown causes of the known effects perceivable in the Universe. Their effects
are the boundaries of our knowledge; their names, the expressions of our ignorance. To suppose some
existence beyond, or above them, is to invent a second and superfluous hypothesis to account for
what has already been accounted for by the laws of motion and the properties of matter. The
hypothesis of a Deity adds a gratuitous difficulty, which so far from alleviating those which it is
adduced to explain requires new hypotheses for the elucidation of its own inherent contradictions.
In the second excerpt, Shelley notes that the putative attributes of God mirror
human cognition, their source:
There is no attribute of God which is not either borrowed from the passions and
powers of the human mind, or which is not a negation. Omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence,
infinity, immutability, incomprehensibility, and immateriality are all words which designate
properties and powers peculiar to organized beings, with the addition of negations, by which the
idea of limitation is excluded.
Finally, Shelley contends that pervasive theism constitutes no evidence for the
existence of God:
That the frequency of a belief in God (for it is not universal) should be any
argument in its favor, none to whom the innumerable mistakes of men are familiar will assert. It is
among men of genius and science that atheism alone is found, but among these alone is cherished an
hostility to those errors with which the illiterate and vulgar are infected.
Like David Hume, Shelley held that belief in God derives from three sources:
sensory experience, inferences therefrom, and testimony. None of these confirms the existence of a
supernatural creator. Such was Shelley’s belief when he was a schoolboy at Eton, where he acquired
the arresting moniker “Shelley the Atheist”; such, presumably, was the belief he took to his
Like many atheists, Shelley used the word “God” in a metaphorical sense.
God was the “personification of ideals”—the enduring human quest for beauty, truth, love,
freedom, wisdom, joy. God was also the universe or the totality of natural phenomena. Because of his
ecstatic effusions on nature, Shelley is sometimes labeled a mystic or a pantheist. He, more honest
or accurate, preferred his Eton moniker.
© 2003 Gary Sloan
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