Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “On Life”

While reading the Huffington Post’s Book section yesterday, my attention was quickly grabbed by a piece from Carolyn Vega about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay (or essay fragment) “On Life.” In a seeming instance of serendipity, this essay struck me as being the perfect thing to bring together so much of what has been on my mind, and by extension, what has appeared on this blog, this last month or more.

My initial intention when I started this blog a few months back was to discuss the books that I read; not quite as proper reviews, but as a way to express my insights, thoughts, and experiences of those books. It began that way, to be sure, but quickly it got off track, and I have to admit that I’m happy it did.

This blog has become a much clearer reflection of my intellectual life; of what feeds my nearly insatiable curiosity or of what leaves me awestruck, whether through the written word, conventional or unconventional art, photography of the furthest reaches of space, or recent discoveries in the realms of science. Although the breadth of the blog has certainly grown, I think the general thread that ties it all together has become clearer. If nothing else, its become a better reflection of where my intellectual curiosity comes from, and that’s from taking, as Shelley writes, “an intense delight” in the world and universe around me.

So far, I’ve explored that “delight” through the writing of Eco, Calvino, and Borges (among others), and in the poetry of the Romantics and the Beats. I’ve sought that sense of astonishment through the lessons of scientists, in the humbling images of deep space, in whimsical photographs of the moon, and in the art of the streets. And last night, when I read this Shelley essay, I realized that he expressed that feeling that I get far better and more beautifully than I ever could. He writes,

LIFE and the world, or whatever we call that which we are and feel, is an astonishing thing. The mist of familiarity obscures from us the wonder of our being. We are struck with admiration at some of its transient modifications, but it is itself the great miracle. What are changes of empires, the wreck of dynasties, with the opinions which supported them; what is the birth and the extinction of religious and of political systems, to life? What are the revolutions of the globe which we inhabit, and the operations of the elements of which it is composed, compared with life? What is the universe of stars, and suns, of which this inhabited earth is one, and their motions, and their destiny, compared with life? Life, the great miracle, we admire not, because it is so miraculous. It is well that we are thus shielded by the familiarity of what is at once so certain and so unfathomable, from an astonishment which would otherwise absorb and overawe the functions of that which is its object.

If any artist, I do not say had executed, but had merely conceived in his mind the system of the sun, and the stars, and planets, they not existing, and had painted to us in words, or upon canvas, the spectacle now afforded by the nightly cope of heaven, and illustrated it by the wisdom of astronomy, great would be our admiration. Or had he imagined the scenery of this earth, the mountains, the seas, and the rivers; the grass, and the flowers, and the variety of the forms and masses of the leaves of the woods, and the colours which attend the setting and the rising sun, and the hues of the atmosphere, turbid or serene, these things not before existing, truly we should have been astonished, and it would not have been a vain boast to have said of such a man, “Non merita nome di creatore, sennon Iddio ed il Poeta.” But now these things are looked on with little wonder, and to be conscious of them with intense delight is esteemed to be the distinguishing mark of a refined and extraordinary person. The multitude of men care not for them. It is thus with Life—that which includes all.

And there it is in the last couple of lines. Far too many of us live our lives all too focused on our individual microcosms, so consumed with the minute to minute troubles that life invariably throws at us that we rarely look outside of ourselves, and if we do, our vision is too clouded by all of those things to allow us to really see how beautiful this world can be. Or we become cynical and jaded, or maybe simply complacent, and relegate that sense of magic and awe as belonging only to children. We look at things “with little wonder,” or as Hawking so perfectly states, we spend far too much time looking at our feet instead of at the stars. We should all be striving to be that “extraordinary person” that Shelley describes in this essay, and every time I write I am reminded of this, and hope to be reminding you, too.

Let us recollect our sensations as children. What a distinct and intense apprehension had we of the world and of ourselves!

A page from Shelley's notebook, with the start of "On Life" (1918)

Shelly continues in the essay, in his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty (which has always seemed to be a continuation of this bit of prose), and other later works, to embrace the existence of an “unseen force” or power that pervades the universe, and he links it to our sense of astonishment, and it is here where our ideas diverge, although not with hostility. Whereas I suppose that I am more grounded in a rationalist and scientific understanding of the world around me, I am not immune to the enormous power that the universe has to awe and inspire. Although Shelley rejects materialism and rationality as an obstacle to wonder, I’m convinced that knowledge, science, and a rational mind can allow us to see beauty in the world in a way that is unique. Richard Feynman, the physicist, explained it best in this anecdote about the relationship of science and beauty,

I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree, I think. And he says’ “you see, I, as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think he’s kind of nutty.

First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined as theoretically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower.

At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions, which also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter, there is also beauty at a smaller dimensions. The inner structure, also the processes, the fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting. It means that insects can see the color.

It adds a question – does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms that… why is it aesthetic… all kinds of interesting questions which with science, knowledge, only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

The bottom line is, that no matter what road one chooses to take, be it through science, or any other way you choose to know and live in the world, let it be one that allows you to always experience the beauty and wonder of reality.

The full text of Shelley’s essay “On Life” can, and should, be accessed here.

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13 thoughts on “Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “On Life”

  1. Wonderful post! Your blog definitely raises the level of intellectual discourse on the internet — and is always a joy to read.

  2. A little further along in Shelley’s essay he writes:

    “How vain is it to think that words can penetrate the mystery of our being! Rightly used they may make evident our ignorance to ourselves, and this is much.”

    Words often fall short of definitively unraveling the mystery of our being, but I think Shelley may have missed the mark on this point. It is often challenging to distill our thoughts of the mystery of being into a limited or brief essay, but I think words can also be a powerful means to reach for a degree of penetration into that mystery if we persist long enough. Reading your words here, and those of many of the other gifted writers who appear on WordPress, I’m starting to think he may be mistaken in this assertion. From his own poem, “Love’s Philosophy,” we get a peek into the mystery of being:

    See the mountains kiss high Heaven
    And the waves clasp one another;
    No sister-flower would be forgiven
    If it disdained its brother;
    And the sunlight clasps the earth,
    And the moonbeams kiss the sea –
    What are all these kissings worth
    If thou kiss not me?

    I love Shelley’s almost reckless abandon in his poems and the sense of wonder I experience myself when reading or writing poetry. Words can penetrate the mystery of our being, if we open ourselves to the wonder you have written about in this post.

    Wonderful reading…..John H.

  3. A beautiful article. The following passage was a gentle reminder to myself:

    “Far too many of us live our lives all too focused on our individual microcosms, so consumed with the minute to minute troubles that life invariably throws at us that we rarely look outside of ourselves, and if we do, our vision is too clouded by all of those things to allow us to really see how beautiful this world can be.”

    How true. I will try to remember this, daily.

    Thanks!

  4. Wonderful post, Kris. “Words can open up…” , not words, but images! The words are the means of conveyance, the images the all. Oh, and not to plug my own humble site, but reading your post I kept saying to myself: “that’s my ‘life is ALL there is’ in a nutshell.” Referencing everything around us, not to books, to theories, to preconceptions or pre-programmed religious doctrines or their remnants lying around in tatters all about us, but to the Life coursing through us, you, me, your daughter, my son, and everyone else.

    It ain’t easy, this non-referencing business, because by our very nature we relate everything we experience back to what we already know. How to turn the focus back to what we get fleeting glimpses of now and then, but essentially what we’ve forgotten or have left to languish untended, un-nurtured…well, there’s the rub!

  5. Last year I read The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes. It’s a wonderful antidote to the modern vice of narrow-minded specialism. Poets and chemists and botanists can be moved by intrinsic Romanticism, as poets can be moved by science.

    Thank you for reminding us of the “beauty and wonder” in Reality, which too many people confine to the grim and cynical.

    • The first mention of “Poets” above was meant to read “Astronomers.” The proof is in the proof-reading. Too quick to hit the Post Comment button. Sorry.

    • Once again, thank you for the incredibly kind words. I haven’t read The Age of Wonder, but it seems like I should :). Going to pay a visit to amazon now. Thanks for the suggestion!

  6. Pingback: The Curiosity of Children |

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