I have written elsewhere on the importance of Percy Shelley’s prose as it functions alongside his poetry (see my blog on ‘Teaching Romanticism‘). This is not a particularly revelatory argument but when rereading any Percy Shelley poem of length, taking the preface into account not only offers great insight into the poem itself but also forges connections between the mutating ideologies of Shelley himself: he is ever political, philosophical and in search of truth. The preface to Laon & Cythna is perhaps one of Shelley’s lesser read prose writings: yet although this was written earlier on in his adult life (1817) it includes many of the hallmarks of confident Shelleyan idealism.
In the preface, he writes how the poem that follows is ‘an experiment’, and insists (not for the last time) that he does not aim to write in a didactic style. He considers the various threads of his argument, from concerns with morality, ‘lofty passions’ and ‘a slow, gradual, silent change’, all written in ‘obvious and appropriate language’ but in the highly artistic form of Spenserian stanzas. ‘I have written fearlessly’, he writes, and there is much evidence for Shelley demonstrating in his preface the necessity of his poetic calling:
It is the business of the poet to communicate to others the pleasure and the enthusiasm arising out of those images and feelings, in the vivid presence of which within his own mind, consists at once his inspiration and his ‘reward’.
Mary Shelley was to describe the poem (later revised and published as the Revolt of Islam) as ‘bold in its opinions and uncompromising in their expression’. Percy Shelley’s stance on humanity and progress was ever-changing but it’s most progressive and optimistic message can be found in this piece of writing from 1817:
Love is celebrated everywhere as the sole law which should govern the moral world.
You can see the manuscript for Laon & Cythna online at the British Library’s ‘Discovering Literature‘ website.
Image Credit: BL
Quotes from: Longman Shelley Vol II, Novels & Selected Works of Mary Shelley Vol II