Tuesday, 30 May 2017


John Webster from Oxford Humanists spoke to us about the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was one of the First Fab four: Leigh Hunt, Byron, Keats and Shelley, all described as Freethinkers and Humanists.

In 1812 Shelley, aged 19, produced a pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism which booksellers were ordered to burn. This also resulted in him being expelled from University College, Oxford.

In 1816 Shelley wrote in a hotel register in Chamonix, Switzerland “I am an atheist, a lover of humanity and a democrat”. Under the column ‘Destination’ he wrote “L’Enfer” (hell).

John proceeded to illustrate his talk with examples of Shelley’s poetry including the Masque of Anarchy, written after the Peterloo massacre, and Ode to the West Wind.  Shelley translated from Latin, Greek, French, German, and Italian. In Pisa he wrote A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays. Also in Pisa Byron and Shelley planned to set up a journal.  Other poems considered were Immortal Deity, The Funeral, and Adonai: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats. Hellas (The world’s great age…) was his last great poem.

Shelley looked forward to air travel and electricity. He also had a progressive view of the world of women compared with, say, Jane Austen. His heroine was Mary Wollstonecraft. He influenced nineteenth century thinkers such as Charles Bradlaugh, and he approved of the working class self-education movement.

John ended his presentation by playing his DVD Shelley’s Golden Years in Italy narrated by Benjamin Zephaniah, which is available on Amazon.

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