An allegorical vision in nine cantos of blank verse. Percy Bysshe Shelley embraces the atheism and materialism of the radical Enlightenment in a poem that mocks most of what the Spenserian tradition had celebrated in the previous two hundred years. There is little direct relation to Spenserianism, though there is a mediated relation — through Robert Southey's Thalaba the Destroyer (to which Shelley is indebted for verse form and visionary machinery) and Erasmus Darwin's Temple of Nature (for the dialogue form and natural philosophy). Queen Mab was originally printed in a small private edition with over a hundred pages of notes; in pirated versions it soon became popular, or at least notorious, on both sides of the Atlantic.
The first canto opens as Henry stands over the sleeping body of Ianthe, wondering if she be alive or dead. In a whirl of sound and light, Mab, the Fairy Queen, descends to the maiden in her chariot. Mab's fantastic appearance is described; she commands Ianthe's spirit to arise, and and it separates from the body. Her virtuous Spirit enters the car, and they ascend high into the starry spheres.
Literary Gazette: "The mixture of sorrow, indignation, and loathing, with which this volume has overwhelmed us, will, we fear, deprive us of the power of expressing our sentiments upon it, in the manner best suited to the subject itself, and to the effect which we wish our criticism to have upon society. Our desire is to do justice 'to' the writer's genius, and 'upon' his principles: not to deny his powers, while we deplore their perversion; and above all, when we lay before our readers the examples of his poetry, to warn them against the abominable and infamous contagion with which in the sequel he poisons these splendid effusions" (19 May 1821) 305.
Literary Chronicle: "The author is an avowed Atheist, who would shake off all laws, human and divine, and have a society rioting in lust and incest, and, as he himself terms it, — 'Unchecked by dull and selfish chastity.' We shall not quote another line from this baneful production, and shall only observe, that the private life of Mr. Shelley is said to be in unison with his principles" 3 (2 June 1821) 345.
Blackwood's Magazine: "Nobody reads the Cockneys. The very copies of them in circulating libraries are asleep on dusty shelves. Even among the frail sisterhood, since Juan appeared, a better taste has sprung up, and Rimini pimps in vain. Queen Mab disturbs no lady's slumbers. She does not even tickle the noses of parsons" 11 (June 1822) 669.
Literary Magnet: "The main object of Queen Mab is to prove, that evil was not a primitive ingredient in the composition of man, and that therefore, he having, by a departure from the track originally marked out for him by nature, incurred all the dangers and difficulties which beset every other but the one true road to happiness, can, — by the same free-will which once led him into error, still return to that blessed state in which the Maker of all that is good first created him. For the poet seems to hold it incompatible with the vigilance of him who delights in the gentle name of the Good Shepherd, that he can permit his flock, or any part of it, when tired and ashamed of the 'error of their ways.' This is incontestably the design, but, alas! so ill chosen are the means for accomplishing it, that they crush what they were to have cherished. The prepossessions imbibed in infancy are so grossly insulted, — not reasoned with, but knocked down, trampled on, and passed over, — the titles of God, though his existence is virtually acknowledged — are so indecently sported with, and in such blasphemous paradoxes, coupled with all that is frightful, disgusting, and detestable, that it may safely be asserted, no single individual, retaining one spark of religious feeling, can ever have had that spark extinguished by Shelley's Fairy Queen. Her diction is at all times, when theology is not, and it is not long her exclusive topic, highly wrought and magnificent in the extreme; and the progress of her magic car to the realms where Ianthe, the sleeping heroine, is to be tutored in ignorance, and a prospective view of the Millennium, are depicted in the most gorgeous and masterly style. The former incident, is obviously the foundation of one of the finest scenes in 'Cain,' and the latter is as an imaginative description, perhaps not excelled in any poem whatsoever" 2 (1824) 342-43.
W. Davenport Adams: "A poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), written in 1810, and containing many passages of imaginative beauty, but disfigured by a crudeness, not to say an immorality, of thought, of which the poet learned afterwards to be ashamed" Dictionary of English Literature (1878) 366.
George Saintsbury: "Here, too, is imitation of the frankest character; for Shelley has not only taken the unrhymed short Pindaric form of [Robert Southey's] Thalaba, but has, with that curious, audacious, unhumorous, childlike innocence which distinguished him throughout, thrown the first stanza into the very mould of Southey's first. Yet he has not kept this lyric form, but has passed frequently into ordinary blank verse — not of the pattern that he was soon to reach, a little indeterminate, and, where determined, inclining towards the dramatic, but still good. If I had to review Queen Mab in 1813 I should have said that it contained a good deal of nonsense, some of it mischievous, but that the author was pretty certainly a poet, and most certainly no small master of prosody already" History of English Prosody (1906-10) 1:104.
W. J. Courthope: "The subject of this composition is quite intelligible, viz. the revelation of the universe to a disembodied spirit. The machinery for the execution of the idea is of the simplest kind. Mab, the Fairy, is supposed to carry the spirit in her car to a point from which it can view the whole external order of Nature, of which the poem is made to give an account. In a structure marked by so little poetical invention it is obvious that the attention of the reader can be arrested only by the anti-religious character of the opinions expressed. The descriptions are commonplace" History of English Poetry (1895-1910) 6:301-02.
Oliver Elton: "'The rhythm of Queen Mab,' says Mary Shelley, 'was founded on that of Thalaba,' and the blank uneven iambic lines, in which most of the poem is written, have a kind of frustrate music. But, like those of Sayers and Southey, they cry out in vain either for regularity of length, or for rhyme, or for the absence of metre.... The passages of true verse, which announce the undoubted style of Shelley, therefore strike the ear as deviations. Most of them occur in the setting, which describes the sleeping Ianthe and the magic car, and which has a pale moony beauty of its own. But the Fairy Mab, with her Shakespearean title and fragile texture, is a strange guide over battlefields and a quaint declaimer against commerce. Shelley, perhaps feeling this incongruity, suppressed her in a later recension which he made of portions of the poem (the first two sections, and the eighth and ninth), and put in her place the 'Daemon of the World'; a dreary personage enough, and one fitter for the declamation in hand. There is now a larger allowance of true blank verse. Some of it is fresh and fine, but most of it is still in bondage. The style of Shelley disengages itself from that of his models, Thomson or Wordsworth, like a child who passes through a fleeting likeness to some ancestor before coming to his proper voice and features" Survey of English Literature 1780-1830 (1912) 2:187.
Carlos Heard Baker: "Queen Mab is a late example of the Spenserian allegory of the eighteenth century" "Spenser, the Eighteenth Century, and Shelley's Queen Mab" Modern Language Quarterly 2 (1941) 83.
Greg Kucich: "The pattern of his allusions to the eighteenth-century background is so obvious as to make his association with that context unmistakable. His heroine, Ianthe, for example, has the same unusual name as [William] Thompson's protagonist in Sickness. Mab's glittering palace in the heavens shares many details with the aerial structures in Spenserian poems by Jones, Darwin, Southey, and Hunt" Keats, Shelley, and Romantic Spenserianism (1991) 250.
For a study of eighteenth-century sources, see Carlos Baker's essay. For Spenserian influences in Shelley's poetry generally, see Bohme (1911), who discusses all of the major and much of the minor verse.
How wonderful is Death,
Death and his brother Sleep!
One, pale as yonder waning moon
With lips of lurid blue;
The other, rosy as the morn
When throned on ocean's wave
It blushes o'er the world:
Yet both so passing wonderful!
Hath then the gloomy Power
Whose reign is in the tainted sepulchres
Seized on her sinless soul?
Must then that peerless form
Which love and admiration cannot view
Without a beating heart, those azure veins
Which steal like streams along a field of snow,
That lovely outline, which is fair
As breathing marble, perish?
Must putrefaction's breath
Leave nothing of this heavenly sight
But loathsomeness and ruin?
Spare nothing but a gloomy theme,
On which the lightest heart might moralize?
Or is it only a sweet slumber
Stealing o'er sensation,
Which the breath of roseate morning
Chaseth into darkness?
Will Ianthe wake again,
And give that faithful bosom joy
Whose sleepless spirit waits to catch
Light, life and rapture from her smile?
Yes! she will wake again,
Although her glowing limbs are motionless,
And silent those sweet lips,
Once breathing eloquence,
That might have soothed a tyger's rage,
Or thawed the cold heart of a conqueror.
Her dewy eyes are closed,
And on their lids, whose texture fine
Scarce hides the dark blue orbs beneath,
The baby Sleep is pillowed:
Her golden tresses shade
The bosom's stainless pride,
Curling like tendrils of the parasite
Around a marble column.
Hark! whence that rushing sound?
'Tis like the wondrous strain
That round a lonely ruin swells,
Which, wandering on the echoing shore,
The enthusiast hears at evening:
'Tis softer than the west wind's sigh;
'Tis wilder than the unmeasured notes
Of that strange lyre whose strings
The genii of the breezes sweep:
Those lines of rainbow light
Are like the moonbeams when they fall
Through some cathedral window, but the teints
Are such as may not find
Comparison on earth.
Behold the chariot of the Fairy Queen!
Celestial coursers paw the unyielding air;
Their filmy pennons at her word they furl,
And stop obedient to the reins of light:
These the Queen of spells drew in,
She spread a charm around the spot,
And leaning graceful from the etherial car,
Long did she gaze, and silently,
Upon the slumbering maid.
Oh! not the visioned poet in his dreams,
When silvery clouds float through the wildered brain,
When every sight of lovely, wild and grand
Astonishes, enraptures, elevates,
When fancy at a glance combines
The wondrous and the beautiful,—
So bright, so fair, so wild a shape
Hath ever yet beheld,
As that which reined the coursers of the air,
And poured the magic of her gaze
Upon the maiden's sleep.
The broad and yellow moon
Shone dimly through her form—
That form of faultless symmetry;
The pearly and pellucid car
Moved not the moonlight's line:
'Twas not an earthly y pageant:
Those who had looked upon the sight,
Passing all human glory,
Saw not the yellow moon,
Saw not the mortal scene,
Heard not the night-wind's rush,
Heard not an earthly sound,
Saw but the fairy pageant,
Heard but the heavenly strains
That filled the lonely dwelling.
The Fairy's frame was slight, yon fibrous cloud,
That catches but the palest tinge of even,
And which the straining eye can hardly seize
When melting into eastern twilight's shadow,
Were scarce so thin, so slight; but the fair star
That gems the glittering coronet of morn,
Sheds not a light so mild, so powerful,
As that which, bursting from the Fairy's form,
Spread a purpureal halo round the scene,
Yet with an undulating motion,
Swayed to her outline gracefully.
From her celestial car
The Fairy Queen descended,
And thrice she waved her wand
Circled with wreaths of amaranth:
Her thin and misty form
Moved with the moving air,
And the clear silver tones,
As thus she spoke, were such
As are unheard by all but gifted ear.
Stars! your balmiest influence shed!
Elements! your wrath suspend!
Sleep, Ocean, in the rocky bounds
That circle thy domain!
Let not a breath be seen to stir
Around yon grass-grown ruin's height,
Let even the restless gossamer
Sleep on the moveless air!
Soul of Ianthe! thou,
Judged alone worthy of the envied boon,
That waits the good and the sincere; that waits
Those who have struggled, and with resolute will
Vanquished earth's pride and meanness, burst the chains,
The icy chains of custom, and have shone
The day-stars of their age; — Soul of Ianthe!
Ianthe's Soul; it stood
All beautiful in naked purity,
The perfect semblance of its bodily frame.
Instinct with inexpressible beauty and grace,
Each stain of earthliness
Had passed away, it reassumed
Its native dignity, and stood
Immortal amid ruin.
Upon the couch the body lay
Wrapt in the depth of slumber:
Its features were fixed and meaningless,
Yet animal life was there,
And every organ yet performed
Its natural functions: 'twas a sight
Of wonder to behold the body and soul.
The self-same lineaments, the same
Marks of identity were there:
Yet, oh, how different! One aspires to Heaven,
Pants for its sempiternal heritage,
And ever changing, ever rising still,
Wantons in endless being.
The other, for a time the unwilling sport
Of circumstance and passion, struggles on;
Fleets through its sad duration rapidly;
Then like an useless and worn-out machine,
Rots, perishes, and passes.
Spirit! who hast dived so deep;
Spirit! who hast soared so high;
Thou the fearless, thou the mild,
Accept the boon thy worth hath earned,
Ascend the car with me.
Do I dream? is this new feeling
But a visioned ghost of slumber?
If indeed I am a soul.
A free, a disembodied soul,
Speak again to me.
I am the Fairy MAB: to me 'tis given
The wonders of the human world to keep:
The secrets of the immeasurable past,
In the unfailing consciences of men,
Those stern, unflattering chroniclers, I find:
The future, from the causes which arise
In each event, I gather: not the sting
Which retributive memory implants
In the hard bosom of the selfish man;
Nor that extatic and exulting throb
Which virtue's votary feels when he sums up
The thoughts and actions of a well-spent day,
Are unforeseen, unregistered by me:
And it is yet permitted me, to rend
The veil of mortal frailty, that the spirit
Clothed in its changeless purity, may know
How soonest to accomplish the great end
For which it hath its being, and may taste
That peace, which in the end all life will share.
This is the meed of virtue; happy Soul,
Ascend the car with me!
The chains of earth's immurement
Fell from Ianthe's spirit;
They shrank and brake like bandages of straw
Beneath a wakened giant's strength.
She knew her glorious change,
And felt in apprehension uncontrolled
New raptures opening round:
Each day-dream of her mortal life,
Each frenzied vision of the slumbers
That closed each well-spent day,
Seemed now to meet reality.
The Fairy and the Soul proceeded;
The silver clouds disparted;
And as the car of magic they ascended,
Again the speechless music swelled,
Again the coursers of the air
Unfurled their azure pennons, and the Queen
Shaking the beamy reins
Bade them pursue their way.
The magic car moved on.
The night was fair, and countless stars
Studded heaven's dairk blue vault,—
Just o'er the eastern wave
Peeped the first faint smile of morn:—
The magic car moved on—
From the celestial hoofs
The atmosphere in flaming sparkles flew,
And where the burning wheels
Eddied above the mountain's loftiest peak,
Was traced a line of lightning.
Now it flew far above a rock,
The utmost verge of earth,
The rival of the Andes, whose dark brow
Lowered o'er the silver sea.
Far, far below the chariot's path,
Calm as a slumbering babe,
Tremendous Ocean lay.
The mirror of its stillness shewed
The pale and waning stars,
The chariot's fiery track,
And the grey light of morn
Tinging those fleecy clouds
That canopied the dawn.
Seemed it, that the chariot's way
Lay through the midst of an immense concave,
Radiant with million constellations, tinged
With shades of infinite colour,
And semicircled with a belt
Flashing incessant meteors.
The magic car moved on.
As they approached their goal
The coursers seemed to gather speed;
The sea no longer was distinguished; earth
Appeared a vast and shadowy sphere;
The sun's unclouded orb
Rolled through the black concave
Its rays of rapid light
Parted around the chariot's swifter course,
And fell, like ocean's feathery spray
Dashed from the boiling surge
Before a vessel's prow.
The magic car moved on.
Earth's distant orb appeared
The smallest light that twinkles in the heaven;
Whilst round the chariot's way
Innumerable systems rolled,
And countless spheres diffused
An ever-varying glory.
It was a sight of wonder: some
Were horned like the crescent moon;
Some shed a mild and silver beam
Like Hesperus o'er the western sea;
Some dash'd athwart with trains of flame,
Like worlds to death and ruin driven;
Some shone like suns, and as the chariot passed,
Eclipsed all other light.
Spirit of Nature! here
In this interminable wilderness
Of worlds, at whose immensity
Even soaring fancy staggers,
Here is thy fitting temple.
Yet not the lightest leaf
That quivers to the passing breeze
Is less instinct with thee:
Yet not the meanest worm
That lurks in graves and fattens on the dead
Less shares thy eternal breath.
Spirit of Nature! thou!
Imperishable as this scene,
Here is thy fitting temple.