Percy Shelley’s Gender-bending Pagan Fantasy

witch of atlas

The Witch of Atlas, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1820

Shelley dedicated this poem to his wife and the ungrateful sow told him it was no good, because it “contains no human interest.” More evidence that Mary Shelley knew nothing about literature. She didn’t like that the poem has no plot. Shelley simply describes his character, her home, and gives a few examples of how she spends her time.

The unnamed witch lives in a cave illuminated by magic baubles. She is beautiful and compassionate. All the creatures in the forest, including the dryads, naiads, satyrs and so on want to live with her and dedicated their lives to following her. She refuses, because she knows she’ll grow affectionate towards them and mourn them when they die.

What does she like to do with the endless days of her immortality? Well, her mystical ancient forefathers left her a supply of magical trinkets and tools; she uses their power to amuse herself. She starts off by making herself a non-gendered flying creature to ride around on:

Then by strange art she kneaded fire and snow
Together, tempering the repugnant mass
With liquid love—all things together grow
Through which the harmony of love can pass;
And a fair Shape out of her hands did flow—
A living Image, which did far surpass
In beauty that bright shape of vital stone
Which drew the heart out of Pygmalion.

A sexless ting it was, and in its growth
It seemed to have developed no defect
Of either sex, yet all the grace of both,—
In gentleness and strength its limbs were decked;
The bosom swelled lightly with its full youth,
The countenance was such as might select
Some artist that his skill should never die,
Imaging forth such perfect purity.

From its smooth shoulders hung two rapid wings,
Fit to have borne it to the seventh sphere,
Tipped with the speed of liquid lightenings,
Dyed in the ardours of the atmosphere

 

Soon, she decides she doesn’t want to live in a cave anymore. She summons a troop of minions to build her a dome carved of ivory and hung with silks. But, her favorite pastime is messing with sleeping humans. She has the ability to mingle her souls with the souls of sleeping mortals and she uses this power to play pranks on them, such as making a king abdicate in favor of his pet monkey. Pretty neat.

Mary was right; the poem doesn’t have a plot. It’s not a story, but a detailed fantasy. It’ll go straight to the pleasure centers of those who like the sorcery part of the sword and sorcery genre.

You might like The Witch of Atlas if:

  • you love fantasy.
  • you love witches.
  • you love hermaphrodites.

You might not like The Witch of Atlas if:

  • you, like Mary Shelley, need everything you need to have a plot.

Final thoughts:

I enjoyed this poem. I picked it out of Shelley’s oeuvre, because I like witches, fantasy and magic. It certainly delivered the witch. Best of all, she’s a powerful woman with mystical powers who, for once, is not portrayed as an evil, corrupting influence on the hearts of men. Shelley was a loud, proud atheist. So, he could just write about a magic woman without stipulating that she was under the influence of Satan. Shelley wasn’t exactly a model human, but I appreciate the chance to read a 200 year-old piece of literature with no trace of Christian patriarchy.

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Queen Mab

Queen Mab

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.