Queen Mab, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1813
Queen Mab is Shelley’s first long poem. Based on the title I was hoping for a mystical, Arthurian tale about a Fairy Queen. No such luck. The Mab of this poem is more of a philosopher than a ruler. The poem contains neither knights nor dragons, but is chock full of vitriol. Shelley’s Mab is a dusky, ethereal, nebulous, purple beauty who appears riding a chariot through the dawn sky. She spies just the prettiest, sweetest blonde mortal you can imagine, innocently sleeping. Based on how lovely and sinless she looks in her slumber, Mab decides to separate the maiden’s unspoiled soul from her exquisite form so she can take her into outer space and impart some knowledge on her.
Please forgive me, I have neither the inclination nor the aptitude to excel at philosophy. So, my summary of this poem may lack clarity and intellectual rigor. Anyway, Queen Mab uses her magic viewy-thing to show all of. . .human history, I guess, to the disembodied Spirit. Cuz her job now, as the disembodied Spirit of a virtuous maiden, is to know about all of human history; past, present and future. I’m not sure why. Anyway, Shelley’s summary of human history is quite misanthropic. Three strongly held opinions emerge: tyrants are bad, nature is good, religion is evil and the cause of all suffering. Unlike most poets before the Modern Era, Shelley wears his atheism loud and proud. Good for him, I say. Freedom of religion should include freedom to not have religion.
This poem is bit of a jumbled mess. It left me wondering “What? Why? I mean, sure, I guess.” However, Percy Bysshe Shelley sure does know his way around imagery. Listen to this amazing thing he wrote about lizard love:
“Those deserts of immeasurable sand,
Whose age-collected fervours scarce allowed
A bird to live, a blade of grass to spring,
Where the shrill chirp of the green lizard’s love
Broke on the sultry silentness alone”
Aw, lizard love calls! Aw. Shucks.
You might like Queen Mab if:
- you are looking for corroboration of your misanthropic, atheist world view.
You may not like Queen Mab if:
- you like epic stories in your Romantic poetry.
Final thoughts: I’m hoping the other long Shelley poems on the list will have more plot to them.