In what sense is Shelley both pessimistic and optimistic in his poems?

Shelley as a romantic poetAnswer:
Shelley’s temperament is a mixture of pessimism and optimism. When he writes or thinks of the regeneration of mankind or reformation of human society his voice is optimistic enough, but when he writes about his personal life, he produces extremely melancholy strains. ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and ‘To a Skylark’, like many of his lyrics, is saturated with melancholy temperament and personal despair.

The causes of this inherent melancholy in Shelley are perhaps his bitter experiences of life, both private and public. From his early life, from his days at Eton he displayed a revolutionary spirit and a sensitive mind. His rational spirit led him to challenge and question the rules of life and society, As a result, he had to face adverse circumstances in the educational institutions, he was studying, in the society, he was living in, and even in the family environment. This resulted in despair and disillusionment which find expressions in numerous lyric cries of pain and melancholy.

The picture that Shelley gives of his own life in different lyrics is of a man fallen upon evil days and subject to the worst type of sufferings. This personal suffering may be traced in the following lines of Ode to the West Wind’ “I fall upon the thorns of life — I bleed / A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed / one too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud”. Shelley thinks that his highly sensitive and supremely imaginative soul is being crushed under the hard rules of society He realizes that as a young boy he had possessed the same limitless energy, the same courage and the same freedom which the West Wind possesses. But now time and circumstances have taken these away from him and he is chained to the gross matter of fact world. So in agony he appeals to the West Wind to lift him as a leaf, a cloud or a wave so that he can feel the power of the West Wind. This feeling of sadness is no expression of weakness, because Shelley is not completely hopeless. Being inspired by the spirit of the West Wind he seeks to revolutionize and reform human society.

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Shelley believes that the regeneration of the decayed human society will occur on the principles of liberty, equality and brotherhood. He hopes that the present state of society, governed by the evil forces of oppressions, cruelty, tyranny, exploitation would soon disappear, and a new world of hopes and glorious fulfillment of man’s aspiration will dawn. Ode to the West Wind’ expresses Shelley’s notion of revolution as well as his hope for a better future. According to Shelley the existing social order is wrong and corrupt. This should be changed by a power and the West Wind can provide us with an example of this power, because it is a destructive as well as a creative agent of nature.


Shelley declares complete fusion of himself with the West Wind to make a prophecy of the Millennium, the Golden Age of mankind. He thinks that under the influence of the west wind and being inspired by its indomitable power, he will be able to create spirited verses carrying his mission of reformation. Then the people of the world will be greatly influenced and inspired by his mission and they will try to bring about a revolutionary change of the present condition. With a great poetic insight, Shelley could peep into the future that awaited mankind. He believes that the future will be bright for mankind, and the time will come when the evil forces will be annihilated and when love, freedom and beauty alone will survive to reign supreme in human society. This idea is expressed by the concluding lines of Ode to the west wind.

“0 wind!

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind!” To sum up, Shelley’s melancholy was temperamental rather than personal disappointment. Being the grandson of a rich country squire, he never tasted extreme poverty. He had no very external reasons to be so pessimistic in outlook. The reason of his bleeding heart was possibly the ebb of his high idealism and his high intellectual faculty. In short, Shelley suffered because he was always thinking and he thought too much. At the same time when he thought of mankind’s sufferings, he was optimistic enough as it is proved by many of his lyrics and poems.

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