"COMMON SYMPATHIES": SHELLEY'S "REVOLT OF ISLAM"
BROCKING, M. ELISABETH
Doctor of Philosophy
The Revolt of Islam, Shelley's longest and most neglected major work, contains some of his most rigorous thinking on the subject of revolution, as well as showing a substantial growth in poetic skill. This poem shows Shelley's empiricism, relentlessly examines the consequences of "reform" as well as tyranny, and is the transition between his earlier works and the great poems which would follow. Shelley wished The Revolt to appeal "to the common sympathies of every human breast," emphasizing both that his readers share important concerns and that he directs his poem primarily to their hearts. Both his desire to write for society, to converse with a readership rather than dictate to a coterie, and his belief--in accord with Hume--that the will is motivated by emotions, show Shelley's inheritance from the eighteenth century. Those few critics who have studied The Revolt have usually seen it as a simple chronicle of the war between Good, as represented by the revolutionaries, Laon and Cythna, and Evil, as appearing in the Tyrant and the Iberian Priest. While such a paradigm is indeed established in the allegorical opening Canto, I argue that as the poem progresses this facile dualism disintegrates. Even the protagonists are potential tyrants; Laon's contradictory language and Cythna's elevation as High Priestess of Equality demonstrate that revolution cannot be achieved instantly, finally, or easily, for evil derives not from external circumstance alone, but also from each man's potential "dark idolatry of self." Another important aspect of The Revolt is the personal immortality achieved by Laon and Cythna after their martyrdom. A seeming anomaly in a skeptical poem which consistently attacks Christianity, and indeed all organized religion, the Paradise of the concluding Canto is actually not an unreal or mystical state but the culmination of the poem's empiricism. Finally, this poem occupies a crucial place in Shelley's poetic development. Written after Queen Mab and before Prometheus Unbound, The Revolt is the link between them, in technique as well as content, for the dogmatic, declamatory style of earlier works gives way to narrative and conversation, and Necessity as the instrument of social change is replaced the individual will. In The Revolt Shelley found his mature voice, and his subject and conclusions here, the philosophy of reform, persist throughout his career.