E457 Percy Bysshe Shelley Questions

Assigned: "Defence of Poetry" (789-802), "Mutability" (701), "Mont Blanc" (720), "Ozymandias" (725), "Ode to the West Wind" (730), "To a Sky-Lark" (765), "Adonais" (772), Prometheus Unbound" (732-62), The Cenci'' electronic edition.

"Defence of Poetry"

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

2. 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 on page 798-99.

3. 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)?

4. 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?

5. 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?

6. 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?


7. 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"

8. 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.

9. 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?

10. 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?


11. 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"

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

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

14. 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)?

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

16. 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?

17. 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?

18. 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?

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

"To a Skylark"

20. 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?

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

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

23. 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?

24. 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?

25. 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?


26. Stanzas 1-8 set forth the invocation and the speaker's lament over the fallen Adonis (Keats). In stanzas 9-13, how, according to the speaker, does imagination work, and what are its effects?

27. In stanzas 14-21, the speaker details the sympathetic response of nature to Adonis' death. But what alteration in the relationship between the speaker and the natural world does he go on to describe in these stanzas? What musings on the human condition does he offer?

28. In stanzas 22-29, the muse Urania laments over the death of Adonis. What powers does she have, and what powers does she not have in relation to humanity? What does she say about the relationship between the literary arts and criticism?

29. In stanzas 30-38, we hear about a procession of mourners, the last of whom is the Shelleyan speaker. What does this speaker establish about his own status as an artist and his relation to the departed poet Adonis?

30. In stanzas 39-46, the speaker has arrived at a less disconsolate way of understanding the passing of Adonis. How, based on what has gone before, do you think he has transitioned to this new frame of mind, and what supposition about the brotherhood of poets sustains it in the present stanzas?

31. In stanzas 47-52, the speaker partly addresses himself, and partly a projected audience of mourners. What advice does he offer, and what Neoplatonic claims underlie it? (Refer to stanza 52 on this point)

32. In stanzas 53-55, at what final resolution has the speaker arrived? How do you interpret the concluding reference in stanza 55, line 486-87 to Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind"?

Prometheus Unbound


33. On pages 733-34, how does Shelley distance his own presentation of the Prometheus myth from that of Aeschylus? To what extent does he suggest that he borrows from Aeschylus, and in what sense does he reject his predecessor's treatment of the Prometheus story?

34. On pages 734-35, what relationship between individual poets and their environment does Shelley assert? Also, what connection does he see between himself and "the great writers of our own age" (735)?

35. On 736, Shelley says that he finds "didactic poetry" unbearable. What is didactic poetry? And what does Shelley describe as his goal in the current play, if it isn't didactic? What audience does he seem to be targeting, and what effect does he expect his dramatic poem will have on that target audience?

Act 1

36. From 1.1.1-73, what transformation has begun to take place in Prometheus' attitude towards his predicament and towards Jupiter? And from 262-305, what were the terms of the curse that Prometheus uttered long ago against the tyrant Jupiter? How does Prometheus respond to the repetition of his own words now?

37. From 1.1.594-633, what strategy does the Fury pursue to dispirit Prometheus? Why does that strategy fail? Still, what inward vision continues to beset Prometheus, and how does Earth comfort him in the lines immediately following?

Act 2

38. From 2.4.32-109, after Demogorgon answers Asia's question about the origin of terror and other evils with the enigmatic phrase "He reigns," what account does Asia give of the original struggle between Prometheus and Jupiter?

39. From 2.4.110-74, how do Demogorgon and then the Spirit clarify the issue concerning which Asia has sought enlightenment?

40. From 2.5.1-110, what transformation does Asia undergo? What kind of journey she has taken with the Spirit of the Hour?

Act 3

41. From 3.1.1-83, Jupiter believes he is about to realize his dream of absolute power. What happens instead? And then from 3.4.97-204, how does the Spirit of the Hour describe the change that takes place when Jupiter falls?

Act 4

42. Shelley's fourth act has sometimes been dismissed as more or less an excrescence on an otherwise very fine drama. What is your view regarding the quality of the resolution achieved in Act 4, based on the Norton selections? Please include in your response some commentary on what Earth says from 370-423 and on Demogorgon's concluding lines (554-78).

The Cenci Electronic Edition__

Act 1

43. Scene 1 provides us with our first look at Count Francesco Cenci — what seems to have long been his motivation for the kind of life he has led? Is he a stage villain, or a complex character?

44. Scene 2 gives us a first look at Beatrice Cenci, the Count's daughter. What virtues does she manifest? Orsino takes the measure of her character — based on your reading of the play's later events, does his judgment of her hold true?

45. In Scene 3, the Count summons his relatives and friends to a banquet, and proceeds to shock them all by reveling in the death of two of his sons. Why does he engage in such a public display? What does he apparently seek from his guests?

Act 2

46. What does Scene 1 reveal about the Count's relations with his family? How does he explain his dark designs and justify them to himself?

47. In Scene 2, how does Orsino's brand of wickedness in thought and deed compare to that of Count Cenci? How are the two men similar? In what do they differ?

Act 3

48. In Scenes 1 and 2, following the Count's outrage against his daughter Beatrice, what logic does she set forth in favor of murdering him? Why is exposing him to public condemnation insufficient to the demands of justice?

Act 4

49. How does the plot against the Count play out in this act? What makes it unravel after Cenci is killed?

Act 5

50. What progression in tragic heroism can you trace in the words and actions of Beatrice in this fifth act, now that she has been arrested for her role in doing away with the Count? Mark the points you find most significant in this development.

51. How does the fifth act, and indeed the play in its entirety, condemn the kind of "justice" represented by the Pope and his ministers? What kind of justice has Beatrice asserted against it? Does this assertion in any way diminish her virtue and tragic standing, or does it seem instead that the sentiment of the play is entirely on her side? Explain your reasons for responding as you do.

Edition: Abrams, M.H. et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2A. 7th edition. ISBN 2A = 0393975681. For The Cenci" is not in the Norton Anthology, but can be read as an etext: The Cenci''.