E212-R Percy Bysshe Shelley Questions

Assigned: "Mutability" (701), "Mont Blanc" (720-23), "Ozymandias" (725-26), "Ode to the West Wind" (730-32), "To a Sky-Lark" (765-67), "Defence of Poetry" (789-802).


1. In this poem Shelley describes the inconstancy of human emotions and aspirations, even of life itself. To what extent is the sentiment in this poem a comment on poetry's potential to transform the individual and the community?

"Mont Blanc"

2. How does the speaker describe the mind's relationship to the material world? How does he connect the mind's processes and natural process, if in fact he does connect them? And is the mind an active, creative power, or does Shelley describe it some other way? Explain.

3. In what sense might Mont Blanc be said both to invite and to challenge interpretation, based on the way the speaker responds to the sight of the mountain in the middle and latter sections of the poem? Moreover, what promise does the mountain hold forth, and for whom?

4. How do Mont Blanc's glacial movements, combined with the elements, compare with or offer insight into the workings and durability of human civilization? In other words, how does the speaker reflect upon nature in such a way that he is also reflecting on human desire and achievement?


5. The traveler suggests that the statue's sculptor intended his work to express the cruelty of Ramses II. The sculptor and time's ruinous effects appear to have issued their sentence against the Pharaoh, but in what sense has he defeated them both — what statement do the ruins still make about human history and human nature?

"Ode to the West Wind"

6. How might we apply Shelley's theories in "Defence of Poetry" about inspiration, expression, and poetry's value, to this poem?

7. Describe the structure of this poem. How does the "terza rima" verse form suit the poem's subject and aims?

8. Characterize the West Wind in this poem — what are its powers, what effects does it have on nature and the poet? In what way does it embody both danger and hope? How is the operation of Shelley's West Wind different from natural forces in Wordsworth and Coleridge (or Blake)?

9. What is the traditional purpose of an ode? What does it seem to be to romantics such as Shelley?

10. What assistance does the poet ask of the West Wind? Why has he been striving with the Wind, and why doesn't the Forest have to do that?

11. When towards the poem's end the speaker prays to the West Wind to scatter abroad his words and thoughts like dead leaves and ashes, what is he implying about poetic language? How does such a prayer relate to Shelley's ideas about inspiration and expression?

12. Is the speaker certain that the West Wind will grant the prayer that has been uttered? What is the task of the poem with regard to the reader and perhaps to the human community?

13. In what way or ways does the organic metaphor operate in this poem?

"To a Skylark"

14. Why can't the poet define the skylark? How does the skylark exceed the capacity of human language to describe its qualities or the qualities of its song?

15. What is the purpose of the similes that the speaker employs in place of direct definition? Do they adequately describe the skylark?

16. What is the relationship between the skylark and physical nature? What is the source of the skylark's song?

17. What prevents the speaker (and us) from singing as the skylark does? Why is the skylark's song better than even the best productions of human genius, language, and emotion?

18. In what sense might this poem (like many other romantic lyric poems) be said to efface the act of writing in favor of the spoken word? Why would a poet do that, whether consciously or otherwise?

19. At the poem's end, does the speaker seem confident that his words can have the same effect on future readers as the bird's pure song has upon him? Why or why not?

"A Defence of Poetry"

20. How does the common metaphor of the "Aeolian lyre" figure (790) in Shelley's theory about poetic inspiration and expression?

21. In his dialogue Ion, Plato makes Socrates argue that inspiration is a direct transmission of divine emotion from the poet to the reader or hearer. Is that the way inspiration works according to Shelley? Explain, with reference to his "fading coal" metaphor (798-99).

22. Coleridge claims that the symbol bridges the gap between mind and matter, subject and object. How does Shelley's view of poetic language differ from Coleridge's? Nonetheless, how is it that poetry "purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being" and "creates anew the universe" (800)?

23. How does Shelley define the poet - what qualities does the poet have? Are his definitions of the poet based more on expressive capacity than on inspiration? Is there a conflict between claims about a poet's "inspiration" and claims about the social function of poetry? Why or why not?

24. As for the value of poets to the human community, why are they, according to Shelley, "the unacknowledged legislators of the world" (802) and "the institutors of laws" (792)? In other words, why and how can poets (and not ordinary judges and politicians) provide society with permanent laws?

25. In explaining why he thinks poetry is necessary to humankind, Shelley states that "we want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know" (797). In what sense might this be an argument against the tendencies of science? Why, even beyond criticisms of science, do we "want" (i.e. "lack") the faculty that Shelley says is necessary - what is damaging the individual's well-being and disuniting the human community?

Edition: Abrams, M. H. et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vols. 2A-C. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2000. ISBN 2A = 0393975681, 2B = 039397569X, 2C = 0393975703.