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Shelley the Atheist

Though in his lifetime his poetry was seldom praised, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is now ensconced in the pantheon of English poets. His “Ode to the West Wind,” “Ozymandias,” “To a Skylark,” “The Cloud,” “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” “Mont Blanc,” Adonais, and Prometheus Unbound are entrenched in anthologies of literature and studied throughout the world. He had a rare facility for lyricism. In English Romantic Poetry and Prose, Russell Noyes enlarges upon Shelley’s “profuse strains of unpremeditated art”:

No one has come nearer to capturing in words the inexpressible surgings of human emotion. When he is exultant, his song shoots upward in a joyous flight like that of his own skylark; when he is dejected it sinks downward, expiring like his own winged words before the flame of love. But whatever his emotion–whether joy, sorrow, desire, or regret–he clothes it in vibrating, persistent, haunting overtones of song.

Shelley was no idle songster, singing for singing’s sake. He was an ardent philanthropist who wanted 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 characterized 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 Necessity of Atheism and Queen Mab. The first, a pamphlet, was published in 1811 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 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,

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 [Shelley 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 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 regarded as a consequence of his atheism. Robert Southey, poet laureate of England, admonished his erstwhile prot’g’: “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 b’te noir of public opinion. He was gentle, self-effacing, candid, sincere, courteous, generous, affectionate, idealistic. (He left Harriet because he deemed it immoral to live with a spouse when love had died.) In Portrait of Shelley, 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 four 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 whole composition.”

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 three 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 a second passage, 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 observes that widespread 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 enviable moniker “Shelley the Atheist”; such, presumably, was the belief he took to his grave.

Like many atheists, Shelley used the word “God” in a metaphorical sense. God was the “personification of human ideals”–the enduring 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 pantheist. He, more honest or accurate, preferred his Eton moniker.