Research Project

This project looks at Percy Bysshe Shelley's poetry against the backdrop of radical politics in a post-Napoleon, dawn-of-industrialization, Great Britain. Starting with an overview of Shelley’s immediate reception, the paper examines the impact of copyright and libel laws, while also looking at the culture of reviews and pirated editions of the poetry. All of these issues bring the politics of language into light. Tracing this role of language further, the paper then analyzes Shelley’s reaction to the Peterloo massacre. The poetry that responded to Peterloo embraces language as a way to both claim agency and express grievance: citizens must first understand and speak of their liberty, and then they can take the political action necessary. These varied applications of language lend themselves to different personal interpretations; they are not self-explanatory, nor can they be confined. To this end, the paper ends by briefly looking at the Victorian reception of Shelley’s poetry. Some Victorians dismiss Shelley, while others – as varied as preachers and socialists – attempt to claim him as one of their own; such myriad attempts to appropriate Shelley’s poetry highlight that once spoken or published, words cannot be constricted to one cause or one interpretation.