Famous Percy Bysshe Shelley Quotes That Live On In History

, Staff Writer
Updated February 16, 2022
Portrait of English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley with quote
    Portrait of English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley with quote
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    Used under Getty Images license

Few have wielded their pens as deftly as the immortal poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He is notable for weaving imagery of the ancient world and allusions to classical literature into his poems about love, life and the abyss beyond. He also wielded his words to send profound, often subversive messages, from the oft-quoted words of “Ozymandias” — which you may recognize from Watchmen or Breaking Bad — to his radical political and social statements in “The Mask of Anarchy.”

About Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was one of the great English poets. While he wrote poetry throughout his college years at both Eton and Oxford, his first published work was a gothic novel called Zastrozzi (1810). He caused a stir with a series of controversial essays such as “The Necessity of Atheism” and “Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson," which got him kicked out of Oxford. He married twice. First to Harriet Westbrook and secondly to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who took his surname and was a legendary writer in her own right.

The Shelleys were part of the Romantic movement of poets who examined man’s relationship with the natural and interior world in contrast to the scientific, industrial world that was developing around them in the early 19th century. They grew close to other Romantic poets Lord Byron and George Gordon and the group would travel to a rented lake home in Geneva. During one of these trips, Byron challenged each writer to compose a ghost story. Mary’s result was the revolutionary novel, Frankenstein, while Percy produced the poetry collection Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude.

He was also friends with the similarly ill-fated Romantic poet John Keats, for whom he wrote the haunting poem “Adonais.” Percy Bysshe Shelley followed his friend Keats in death just a year later in 1922 at the age of 29. He drowned off the coast of Italy in his boat, the Don Juan. Some speculated at the time that he was murdered by a political enemy. Ironically, the manner of his death immortalized him and his works in the hearts of poets and the general population. Fellow poet Matthew Arnold described Shelley as,

"A beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain. Shelley could always fly, but he could never swim.”

Quotes From Percy Shelley’s Poems

Only a small selection of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems live on, but those that do have proven to be eternal. His poetry explores life, love nature and especially death. This includes "Adonais," an elegy for his fallen friend John Keats, and the aptly-named “To Mary” which he addressed to Mary Shelley. His best-known sonnet, “Ozymandias,” has been referenced in popular entertainment and explores themes that would become relevant to Shelley himself shortly after writing it: even great men are subject to the ravages of time.

  • “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/ Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!/Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/ Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away.” - Ozymandias

  • “Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be/ An echo and a light unto eternity!" - Adonais, An Elegy on the Death of John Keats

  • “I am not well whilst thou art far;/ As sunset to the sphered moon,/ As twilight to the western star,/ Thou, beloved, art to me.” - To Mary

  • “This world is the nurse of all we know,/ This world is the mother of all we feel,/ And the coming of death is a fearful blow/ To a brain unencompassed with nerves of steel;/ When all that we know, or feel, or see,/ Shall pass like an unreal mystery.” - On Death

  • “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!” - Queen Mab

  • “And the sunlight clasps the earth/ And the moonbeams kiss the sea:/ What is all this sweet work worth/ If thou kiss not me?” - Love’s Philosophy

  • “Music, when soft voices die,/ Vibrates in the memory —/ Odours, when sweet violets sicken,/ Live within the sense they quicken.“ - Music when Soft Voices Die

  • “Thy light alone like mist o'er mountains driven, Or music by the night-wind sent Through strings of some still instrument, Or moonlight on a midnight stream, Gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream.” - Hymn to Intellectual Beauty

  • “Like the ghost of a dear friend dead/ Is Time long past./ A tone which is now forever fled,/ A hope which is now forever past,/ A love so sweet it could not last,/ Was Time long past.” - Time Long Past

  • “Alas! I have nor hope nor health,/ Nor peace within nor calm around,/ Nor that content surpassing wealth/ The sage in meditation found,/ And walked with inward glory crowned—/ Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.” - Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples

  • "We look before and after, And pine for what is not: Our sincerest laughter With some pain is fraught; Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.“ - To a Skylark

  • “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,/ Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead/ Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,/ Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,/ Pestilence-stricken multitudes …” - Ode to the West Wind

  • “Art thou pale for weariness/ Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,/ Wandering companionless/ Among the stars that have a different birth,/ And ever changing, like a joyless eye/ That finds no object worth its constancy?” - To the Moon

  • “The old laws of England—they/ Whose reverend heads with age are gray, Children of a wiser day;/ And whose solemn voice must be/ Thine own echo—Liberty!” - The Mask of Anarchy

  • “Some say that gleams of a remoter world/ Visit the soul in sleep, — that death is slumber,/ And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber/ Of those who wake and live.” - Mont Blanc

  • “Fame is love disguised.” - An Exhortation


Quotes From Shelley’s Plays

In addition to his poetry, Percy Shelley wrote several lyrical verses and dramas. He was particularly fond of using figures from Greco-Roman mythology and the style of the ancients, as seen in The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound. Although tragically never performed during his lifetime, Shelley’s timeless words have been given new life both on stage and on the page over the past 200 years.

  • “I have drunken deep of joy, And I will taste no other wine tonight.“ - The Cenci

  • “The breath of accusation kills an innocent name, And leaves for lame acquittal the poor life, Which is a mask without it.“ - The Cenci

  • “Death is the veil which those who live call life; They sleep, and it is lifted.” - Prometheus Unbound

  • “When soul meets soul on lovers' lips.” - Prometheus Unbound

  • “All spirits are enslaved which serve things evil.” - Prometheus Unbound

  • “No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure.” - Prometheus Unbound

  • “to hope til Hope creates from its own wreak the thing it contemplates;” - Prometheus Unbound

  • “And the abyss shouts from her depth laid bare,/ Heaven, hast thou secrets? Man unveils me; I have none.” - Prometheus Unbound

  • “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” - Prometheus Unbound


Percy Shelley Quotes About Poetry

Shelley wrote dozens of stimulating and often scandalous essays during his life. While his views on religion and politics were controversial in the 19th century – he was an atheist as well as a socialist – his views on poetry are universal. In A Defense of Poetry and Other Essays, he examines the role of the poet in society and the power of the pen to change the world and even transcend the earthly experience.

  • “A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.”

  • “A single word even may be a spark of inextinguishable thought.”

  • “Sorrow, terror, anguish, despair itself are often the chosen expressions of an approximation to the highest good. Our sympathy in tragic fiction depends on this principle; tragedy delights by affording a shadow of the pleasure which exists in pain.”

  • “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

  • “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”

  • “Thou demandest what is love? It is that powerful attraction towards all that we conceive, or fear, or hope beyond ourselves, when we find within our own thoughts the chasm of an insufficient void, and seek to awaken in all things that are, a community with what we experience within ourselves.”

  • “A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.”

  • “Poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions.”

  • “Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void for ever craves fresh food.”


Look On My Works, Ye Mighty

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems inspired generations of great thinkers from Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw to Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi. The legacy of his words proves his statement that “a poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.”