Shelley’s Irrefutable Agnosticism
Brandy D. Anderson
[Presented at the AAUEC 2013]
More than any other notable Romantic, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s religious views are the most contentious. Although Shelley is famous for his essay “The Necessity of Atheism”, this title is misleading in both representing the essay’s content and Shelley’s argument. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s religious ideology is better represented not by his self-proclaimed atheism but rather by agnosticism, an assertion which is clearly supported when a careful examination is made regarding his definition of faith, religion, and the Power of an unknown source of divinity.
Shelley’s belief in ‘something’ is apparent from his beginning note in “The Necessity of Atheism” where he states “There is No God. This negation must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken”. Shelley is not negating the existence of any higher being, but rather the existence of an intelligent deity, such as the Christian God. Right from the start he is telling the reader that he does not deny the possibility of some kind of spiritual influence on the world. His refutations are directed towards the blind belief in a “creative deity” when there is no proof to support such belief.
In “Necessity”, Shelley limits his refutation of spiritual divinity as that belonging to the theologian God. He says “If we wish to explain our ideas of the Divinity we shall be obliged to admit that, by the word God, man has never been able to designate but the most hidden, the most distant and the most unknown cause of the effects which he saw; he has made use of his word only when the play of natural and known causes ceased to be visible to him” (“Necessity”). Shelley’s dismissal is aimed at the Christian idea of God because he claims that God is used to identify or explain the unexplainable; the unexplainable which could be caused by a spiritual or other natural or unnatural phenomena. Clearly, Shelley is not denying the possibility of an existence of an unknown entity.
In “An Address to the Irish People”, Shelley blatantly celebrates spirituality that produces positivity in people. He states that “all religions are good which make men good” (“Address”); this is hardly a statement befitting an atheist. Shelley states that “the gates of Heaven are open to people of every religion, provided they are good” (“Address”), indicating that he believes in some form of an afterlife, or, at the very least, the possibility of a form of life after death. He speaks of a person’s “desire to go Heaven in [his or her] own way” (“Address”). Shelley does not propose that there is one form of spirituality or religion that is correct or truthful, but he does indicate that there are many different ideas of spirituality and that each one is valid if it makes a person act better or behave as a ‘good person’. He is open to the possibility of a higher power that lifts humanity towards seeking perfection because “every religion is right and true which makes men beneficent and sincere” (“Address”).
The Spirit of Nature in “Queen Mab” is an example of Shelley’s vision of a higher being. The “pure diffusion of [the Spirit of Nature’s] essence throbs/ Alike in every human heart” (“Mab” III 215-216). The Spirit of Nature is the “Soul of those mighty spheres/ Whose changeless paths through Heaven’s deep silence lie” (“Mab” III 228-229). Nature is the creator of the universe, “nature’s soul” “formed this world so beautiful” and Nature “spread Earth’s lap with plenty, and life’s smallest chord/ Strung to unchanging unison” (“Mab” IV 87-82). Shelley rejects the Christian god, but he does not reject religion or fate altogether. In fact, Shelley explicitly states “mine is another faith” (“Julian and Maddalo” 165), implying that he does have a strong sense of faith.
Shelley’s Spirit of Nature is his “all-sufficing Power” (“Mab” VI 196) and although it “requirest no prayers or praises” (“Mab” VI 198), it does require respect. This respect and worship bestowed upon Shelley’s Spirit of Nature runs throughout Shelley’s life. Shelley begins “Alastor” with the fervent call of “Earth, Ocean, Air, beloved brotherhood!/ If our great Mother has imbued my soul/ With aught of natural piety to feel/ Your love, and recompense the boon with mine” (1-4). Nature is clearly the principal cornerstone of Shelley’s religion. The “spirits of the air” (“To—” 1) serve as saints in his faith. Shelley does not worship in a church or building. Instead, he communicates his faith “with mountain winds, and babbling springs/ And moonlight seas” (“To—” 7-8).
The Spirit of Nature is a strong faith for Shelley not only during his early years during the time of his composition of “Queen Mab”, but his spiritual faith remained strong throughout his lifetime. Acknowledging and respecting the Spirit of Nature brings him “Love, Hope and Self-esteem” (“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” IV 1). The impact of Nature upon his spirituality is apparent in nearly any piece of his writing. Shelley is constantly aware of “The awful shadow of some unseen Power” which “Floats though unseen among us” (“Hymn” I 1-2). Whether people choose to acknowledge the omnipotent power of nature or not is the question which Shelley often poses. The mysterious spirit “visits with inconstant glance/ Each human heart and countenance” (“Hymn” I 6-7). When ignored, Nature is so powerful a spirit and a force that it can have deadly consequences.
Shelley nearly always capitalizes the word “Power”, such as the “unseen Power” from “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” illustrates. Shelley speaks of the power of Nature because it is a sublime and awe inspiring force of faith. In “Mont Blanc” he speaks of the “everlasting universe of things” (I 1) and the “awful scene,/ Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down/ From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne” (II 4-6). The Arve is here personified as the God to which Shelley worships. The Arve releases celestial harmony around his “ethereal waterfall” (II 23-25). The Ravine induces a “trance sublime and strange” (II 34). Again we have this spiritual power capitalized, “Power dwells apart in its tranquility” (IV 96). Interestingly, Shelley ends “Mont Blanc” with two lower case “power”s, signifying the lonely and solitary aspect of his faith. “Mont Blanc yet gleams on high: the power is still there/ The still and solemn power of many nights/ And many sounds, and much of life and death” (V 1-3).
In his essay “Speculations on Metaphysics”, Shelley speaks of “the existence of a Power bearing the same relation to all that we perceive and are”. Nature is the foundation of life. Shelley speaks of Nature and the “Spirit fair” and how he “worships thee, / And every form containing thee” (“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” VII). This worship extends not only to the natural elements but also to the very nature of life and death itself. In “The Sunset” Shelley postulates “Whether the dead find, oh, not sleep, but rest/ And are the uncomplaining things they seem, / Or live, or drop in the deep sea of Love;/ Oh, that like thine, mine epitaph were – / Peace!” (47-50). “Sweet death” is tied with “Night by Day,/ Winter by Spring, or Sorrow by swift Hope,/ Led into light, life, peace” (“Epipsychidion” 73-75). Death can be sweet not only for the rest and peace it brings, but Shelley also worships death as a means to obtain knowledge. In “Queen Mab”, he claims that “Death is no foe to virtue” (IX 176). Part of Shelley’s faith in nature stems from his desire to worship knowledge and virtue and truth, which he believes are obtainable through the Platonic idea of knowledge after death.
Shelley’s intense desire to get to the core of truth and virtue leads him to constantly question religion and to never assume he has all of the answers. Indeed, for the author of an essay titled “The Necessity of Atheism”, he speaks of Heaven, often capitalized, much more than most of his contemporary Romantics. In his “Ode to Heaven”, Shelley repeatedly demands “What is heaven?” Although there certainly is a derisive undertone to this poem, there is also a genuine glimmer of wonder and curiosity. Shelley does not completely dismiss the possibility of a Heaven. He does not completely dismiss the possibility of a God or Higher Being. Shelley likens Heaven to Nature, combining the two spiritual elements together.
In “The Sensitive Plant”, Shelley again combines his faith in Nature with Heaven when he speaks of “Heaven’s blithe winds” and the “hidden gem,/ Shone smiling to Heaven, and every one/ Shared joy in the light of the gentle sun” (I 61-63). The “Power in this sweet place” (“Sensitive Plant” II 1) of Nature makes the flowers and the garden “as God is to the starry scheme” (II 3-4). Shelley uses the word God in different ways, an issue that he addresses in his essay “On Christianity” when he says “The thoughts which the word ‘God’ suggests to the human mind are susceptible of as many variations as human minds themselves”. He goes on to say that people throughout history have used the word differently for different purposes and that “they agree only in considering it the most awful and most venerable of names, as a common term devised to express all of mystery, or majesty, or power, which the invisible world contains” (“Christianity”).
Using Shelley’s own definition of God, then, it can be said that Shelley did in fact believe in God. Shelley certainly believed in the mysterious power and majesty of Nature. His Spirit of Nature fits in with his definition of God. As early as “Queen Mab” Shelley talks of a “Sacred Peace” (III 71) which continues to permeate much of his ideology throughout his lifetime. “Mont Blanc” is a celebration of the wonder and majesty of Nature. This definition also would include the mysteries of death that preoccupied Shelley. Then death would also fall under the category of being called God since the “beautiful shape” of “death” is a “mysterious paradise” (“Alastor” 211-212), once more bringing Shelley’s claim at the beginning of “The Necessity of Atheism” that “There is No God” into contention by his own definitions.
For Shelley, Death is a God full of mysteries, and in its awfulness one can wonder “whether life had been before that sleep/ The heaven which [he] imagine[s], or a hell” (“Triumph of Life” 332). Death in the form of “sweet flowers” “filled the grove/ With sounds which whoso hears must needs forget/ All pleasure and all pain, all hate and love/ Which they had known before that hour of rest” (“Triumph of Life” 315-320). For Shelley, there are many mysterious, majestic, and powerful Gods: Nature, Death, and Mutability to name a few. These various Gods, or Spirits, appear out “Of darkness [to] reillumine even the least/ Of heaven’s living eyes” (“Triumph of Life” 391-392).
Shelley explicitly states that he believes in a Power that is larger than humanity. In “On Christianity” Shelley states “We live and move and think; but we are not the creators of our own origin and existence. We are not the arbiters of every motion of our own complicated nature; we are not the masters of our own imaginations and moods of mental being. There is a Power by which we are surrounded, like the atmosphere in which some motionless lyre is suspended, which visits with its breath our silent chords at will”. This is not the talk of a person who believes in nothing, but rather this is the talk of a person who believes in a divine Natural Spirit and has faith in something outside of the human spectrum.
“Ode to the West Wind” portrays the majesty of Shelley’s Spirit of Nature. The “Wild West Wind” is an “unseen presence” that has the Power to lift the dead, to drive the dead leaves “like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing” (I 1-3). Nature’s Power and Natural force rule over birth and death, taking seeds “where they lie cold and low,/ Each like a corpse within its grave, until/ Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow/ Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth” (I 7-10). The elemental God of Nature works with, and sometimes against, the Natural God of Life and Death. Nature has the Power to shake the “tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean” (“West Wind” II 3). Nature is “uncontrollable” (“West Wind” IV 5).
Shelley once more tackles the mystery and majesty of the God of Nature in “A Vision of the Sea”. He begins the poem by talking of the “terror of tempest” and the “fierce gale” (1-2). The raw elements are beyond the control of humanity. Lightning is “like a deluge from heaven” (“Vision” 4) and a “terrible mass” (7). Shelley reminds the reader that Nature is the all Powerful God. Shelley writes about humanity’s attempt to tame or rule the God or Spirit of Nature, but because Nature is all Powerful , Nature sends the ship “splitting” (“Vision” 26), a punishment for humanity’s ignorance. Two of the ship’s passengers, a mother and child who are respectful in their faith of Nature, are spared by the Spirit after the ignorant mariners are killed for their insolence. Nature sends a “deep calm of blue heaven dilating above,/ And, like passions made still by the presence of Love” (“Sea” 128-129). The faithful are rewarded.
The mysterious dialogue between the sublime and all Powerful essence of the Spirit of Nature is examined by Shelley. Shelley contemplates how the various Gods of Nature could communicate with each other. In “Liberty” he fancies that the “fiery mountains answer each other,/ Their thunderings are echoed from zone to zone;/ The tempestuous oceans awake one another/ And the ice-rocks are shaken round Winter’s throne,/ When the clarion of the typhoon is blown” (1-5). Shelley questions the mechanics and foundations of his faith as he attempts to make sense of the abstract mystery.
Shelley gives the God or Spirit of Nature a physical form in “To a Skylark”. He begins the poem with a prayer, “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!/ Bird though never wert,/ That from heaven, or near it,/ Pourest thy full heart/ In profuse strains of unpremeditated art” (1-5). Nature not only physically brings life into existence but it also creates art which is the food of life. The Skylark God brings “an unbodied joy” (15) to the world. Although this divine Spirit cannot always be seen, Shelley can “feel that it is there” (25). The Skylark God controls the world, controls “All the earth and air” and “As when Night is bare/ From one lonely cloud/ The moon rains out her beams, and heaven/ is overflowed” (26-30).
The issue of blind faith and obedience is discussed in “To a Skylark”. “Thou art unseen” (I 19), Shelley can still hear the Spirit of Nature’s “shrill delight” (I 19). He questions the embodiment of his faith. “What thou art we know not;/ What is most like thee?/ From rainbow clouds there flow not/ Drops so bright to see/ As from thy presence showers a rain of melody” (“Skylark” I 31-35). Shelley’s faith is strong and unrelenting even without a solid form for him to place his worship upon. He looks to his faith in Nature for guidance. He demands that the God of Nature teach us “What sweet thoughts are thine” because he has “never heard/ Praise of love or wine/ That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine” (“Skylark” I 61-65). Shelley is eager to consume all lessons from Nature so that he can better serve and represent his God.
Shelley often reaffirms his love and devotion for the Spirit or God of Nature. In “Song” Shelley praises his God:
I love all that thou lovest,
Spirit of Delight!
The fresh Earth in new leaves dressed,
And the starry night;
Autumn evening, and the morn
When the golden mists are born.
I love snow, and all the form
Of the radiant frost;
I love waves, and winds, and storms,
Which is Nature’s, and may be
Untainted by man’s misery.
Shelley’s love and worship of Nature is clear to see throughout his works. When a critical examination is made, his agnosticism is irrefutable. Shelley is a deeply religious and spiritual writer. His rejection of religion is limited to what he sees as the evils and hypocrisy of organized religion, most notably that of the Christian church. Yet, Shelley’s fervent worship of Nature and the Natural good compelled him to preach tolerance of Nature and humanity. Shelley says “Do not inquire if a man be a heretic, if he be a Quaker, or a Jew, or a Heathen ; but if he be a virtuous man, if he loves liberty and truth, if he wish the happiness and peace of human kind. If a man be ever so much a believer and love not these things, he is a heartless hypocrite, a rascal, and a knave. Despise and hate him, as ye despise a tyrant and a villain” (“Address to the Irish People”). Percy Bysshe Shelley’s spirituality and faith are well represented throughout his prose and verse.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Vision of the Sea”. The Poetical Works of Shelley. Cambridge ed. Ed. Newell F. Ford. Boston: Houghton Mifflan. 1974. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Alastor”. The Poetical Works of Shelley. Cambridge ed. Ed. Newell F. Ford. Boston: Houghton Mifflan. 1974. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “An Address to the Irish People”. Archive.org. Web. 24 November 2012.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”. The Poetical Works of Shelley. Cambridge ed. Ed. Newell F. Ford. Boston: Houghton Mifflan. 1974. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Liberty”. The Poetical Works of Shelley. Cambridge ed. Ed. Newell F. Ford. Boston: Houghton Mifflan. 1974. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Julian and Maddalo”. The Poetical Works of Shelley. Cambridge ed. Ed. Newell F. Ford. Boston: Houghton Mifflan. 1974. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Mont Blanc.” The Poetical Works of Shelley. Cambridge ed. Ed. Newell F. Ford. Boston: Houghton Mifflan. 1974. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ode to Heaven”. The Poetical Works of Shelley. Cambridge ed. Ed. Newell F. Ford. Boston: Houghton Mifflan. 1974. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ode to the West Wind”. The Poetical Works of Shelley. Cambridge ed. Ed. Newell F. Ford. Boston: Houghton Mifflan. 1974. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “On Christianity”. Percy Bysshe Shelley Online Archive. Web. 24 November 2012.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “The Sensitive Plant”. The Poetical Works of Shelley. Cambridge ed. Ed. Newell F. Ford. Boston: Houghton Mifflan. 1974. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Song”. The Poetical Works of Shelley. Cambridge ed. Ed. Newell F. Ford. Boston: Houghton Mifflan. 1974. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Speculation on Metaphysics”. Read Book Online.net Archive. Web. 24 November 2012.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “To”. The Poetical Works of Shelley. Cambridge ed. Ed. Newell F. Ford. Boston: Houghton Mifflan. 1974. Print.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “The Triumph of Life”. The Poetical Works of Shelley. Cambridge ed. Ed. Newell F. Ford. Boston: Houghton Mifflan. 1974. Print.