“We are all Greeks”
The well – known phrase which motivated the British and European public opinion of 1821 in favor of the Greek War for Independence, came from a delicate, thoughtful and unrecognized poet of his time, the English Percy Bysshe Shelley.
An unconventional teenager, a militant opponent of the establishment, even the Church and landowners, he was marginalized and persecuted for his love of Truth and Freedom. With his work, Shelley was the inspired prophet of the Greek Revolution.
In his emblematic work, “Hellas”, which he composed in the autumn of 1821, he confidently announces the arrival of a new era in Europe and the beginning of a “new race” that “will continue to produce fresh generations to accomplish that destiny which tyrants foresee and dread”. His political radicalism of pacifist Shelley intersected with his admiration for classical Athens, as a pioneer of a liberal political constitution. Shelley recognized modern Greeks as the descendants of the ancient ones. His love embraced Greek culture in its timelessness, recognizing it as democratic. His untimely and tragic death by drowning did not allow him to accomplish his dream and visit Greece, nor to witness the outcome of the Greek struggle for independence.
However he managed, as long as he lived, to pass on his enthusiasm and faith in the Revolution to his close friend, Lord Byron, who would land in Greece in 1823. His three close friends, Lord Byron, Eduard John Trelawny and Leigh Hunt, fare welled Shelley by ritually cremating his body near the beach of Viareggio, where his body was washed ashore, offering libations, under close supervision by the police authorities and the indiscreet crowd.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822), born in Field Place, near Horsham, West Sussex, England, was the eldest son of Sir Timothy Shelley’s eight – member family, a member of the Whigs from 1790 – 1792 and 1806 – 1812. He was the offspring of an aristocratic family and from an early age expressed radical ideas, turning against any traditional institution. He possibly developed his attitude towards the weak or defenseless already as a student at Eton College (from 1804 onwards), where his sensitive, benevolent nature made him a pole of attraction for the teasing or even torturing by elder students. He did not reciprocate such acts of bullying to his younger schoolmates.
On April 10, 1810, he enrolled at the University of Oxford, dedicated himself in long, daily study, and published his first Gothic novel ”Zastrozzi” (1810). In this work, he exposes his atheistic worldview for the first time. Together with his classmate and friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792 – 1862), they published a pamphlet entitled “The Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson” (1810), in which Shelley expressed his first political views on war, government and society. A year later, he and Hogg were expelled from university after they anonymously published a pamphlet entitled “The Necessity of Atheism”. With this move, Shelley drew the attention of the university authorities, who asked for answers regarding the paternity of the text. Shelley’s refusal to answer any questions led to his expulsion from the university, already giving the mark of his proud course that he will follow until his death.
His course does not seem to be the result of some superficial, post-adolescent revolution. His reluctance to conform socially, by reconstructing or censoring his writings, will discourage many publishers and magazines from publishing his work later in life, in their attempt to protect themselves from a possible accusation of blasphemy or inciting rebellion.
Some information on his personal life shed light on Shelley’s genuine anti-conformist spirit; his liberal spirit in love is well – known, something which may have characterized other people in his circle as well (Byron, Trelawny) – a scandalous life choice according to the morals of the time.
Four months after he was expelled from Oxford University, disappointed by a failed romance with his cousin Harriet Grove, he secretly meets and marries sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook, with whom he has a son and a daughter. The couple lives together with Harriet’s elder sister, and Shelley invites his good friend, Hogg, to live with him; whom he however asks to leave when his feelings for Harriet become evident. Shelley’s relationship with Hariett does not seem to spark his mental interest and he is gradually seeking inspiration outside of marriage. He developed a platonic love affair with his teacher Elizabeth Hitchener, the muse for his utopian “Queen Mab” allegory (1813), and met his second wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Shelley, in 1814.
Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851), later author of “Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus” (1818), is the daughter of the anarchist philosopher and Percy’s mentor, William Godwin (1756-1836) and the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died a few days after giving birth to her daughter. Shelley fled with Mary and her step-sister, Claire, to Switzerland and France for six months, while still married to Harriet, who was pregnant with their third child. Claire meets Lord Byron in Geneva and becomes pregnant with their daughter, Allegra.
These moves seem exciting to a young and restless spirit, but they also have their cost. After returning to England, Shelley will have to confront Godwin’s rage. While the couple was in Geneva at Claire’s urging, Harriet committed suicide, which shocked Shelley. Two more losses follow: the two children he has with Mary die (William 1816 – 1819, Clara Everina 1817 – 1818). Eventually only his third child, Percy Florence Shelley (1819 – 1889) will survive.
Thanks to Claire’s intervention, Shelley came in contact with Byron in Geneva in 1818, where they rented adjoining houses by the lake. They interact creatively and spend time together every day. Shelley completes “Mont Blanc” (1816) and “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” (1817), and encourages Byron in the composition of “Don Juan” (1819). Other fruitful acquaintances followed, this time in England, where he remained until March 1818, with the poets Leigh Hunt (1784 – 1859) and John Keats (1795 – 1821). The couple and Claire leave England on March 11, 1818 and embark on a voyage to Italy in order to meet with Byron, who is now in Venice. They live in various cities, including Florence, Rome, and finally Pisa, from where Shelley frequently travels to Livorno and Lucca. Shocked by the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester (16/08/1819), he completes his most famous political poems: “The Masque of Anarchy” and “Men of England”.
The circle of Pisa
Pisa is the landmark for the rise of the Philhellene Shelley. Percy and Mary Shelley came in contact with the so-called «Pisa Circle», a group of people gathered around the archbishop of Hungary, Ignatius, who sought to play an active role in Greek affairs. Ignatius had taken refuge first in Tuscany, then in Pisa, away from the Austrian police, as he had pioneered the founding of the “Philomousos Society”, together with Kapodistrias in Vienna (1814). Around him gathered, among others, Alexandros Mavrokordatos, the ruler of Wallachia, Ioannis Karatzas with his son, Constantine, and Vincenzo Gallina, a member of the Carbonari. Shelley developed a close relationship and collaboration with Alexandros Mavrokordatos, who was hosted at Ignatius’ residence. The group elaborated a strategy opposite to the one of Ypsilantis. Shelley was informed of what was happening in Greece by his “turban-bearer” friend (as he called Mavrokordatos), who influenced his own political thought. The two men had met in the late 1820s. A series of letters between Mary and Mavrokordatos prove their special relationship. So when the Shelley couple learned that Ypsilantis had crossed the Pruthos River, they wrote two letters to English newspapers, likely after suggestion by their new Greek friend. In this way they took publicly position in favor of the Greek Revolution in their homeland, promoting the plans of Mavrokordatos and the Greeks.
“HELLAS”: Percy Shelley’s masterpiece
Albeit important, Mavrokordatos’ influence was not the sole factor which determined Shelley’s position in favor of the Greeks. As can be seen in his previous works, Percy Shelley was a lover of the Revolution. He was a romantic, selfless advocate of human rights to the core of his soul. The case of the “idealist” Shelley is often contrasted with that of the “realist” Lord Byron, who, although better known as a Philhellene than Shelley, did not act solely based on purely idealistic motives. The developments that took place here, between Shelley, the circle of Pisa and Byron, resulted in the creation of the masterpiece poem “Hellas” by Shelley. At the same time, Shelley conveyed his enthusiasm for the Greek cause to Byron, who until then had been absorbed by the Italian Carbonari revolutionary movement.
Based on news reports and information he obtained through Mavrokordatos, Shelley “improvised” a poem of 1100 verses entitled “Hellas”, in autumn 1821. His plan was to publish it immediately and raise sympathy for the Greeks. In this emblematic work of literary philhellenism, he singles out the virtues of the Greek cause, repeating positions expressed by other colleagues, but enclosing them in a stronger form. The work was published in January 1822, with the hope that the impact it would have on its readership would lead to sending weapons and money to Greece. The poem “Hellas” is dedicated to Alexandros Mavrokordatos.
The basic model for his lyric poem is Aeschylus’ tragedy “The Persians”, both in terms of form and meaning. The writer’s position in time, in relation to the events to which he refers, differs remarkably from the one of Aeschylus. Aeschylus composes the Persians seven years after the Battle of Salamis, thus creating a legend about events that already took place; he describes an accomplished reality with the use of his imagination. On the contrary, Shelley composes his poem in the autumn of 1821, while the situation in Greece is still pretty unstable, thus functioning as a Prometheus for the events of the Revolution. He relies on his imagination to envision the following day, expressing his personal expectations regarding the outcome of the revolution. He conveys an idealized image of Greece and the Revolution, more inspired by the Battle of Salamis and the classic past, than by contemporary events. In his own words: “The modern Greek is the descendant of those glorious beings whom the imagination almost refuses to figure to itself as belonging to our kind, and he inherits much of their sensibility, their rapidity of conception, their enthusiasm, and their courage“.
Shelley’s drama follows the basic outline of Aeschylus’ Persians. Instead of Xerxes there is Sultan Mahmut (meaning Mahmut II, during whose reign the Greek revolution broke out), and in the place of Chorus, there is the Chorus of the Greek female slaves. Mahmut receives unpleasant news from the war front, which foreshadow his decline as a ruler, while the female Chorus comments. The central issue is the different perception of Freedom. Freedom is defined for Mahmut by his position as sultan of an empire and is related to terms of power, imposition and maintenance of that power. The enslaved Greeks, on the other hand, refer to a kind of superior freedom, which is timeless and universal, it will be reborn as many times as needed, until forever established in the world. Careful analysis of the poem shows that even Mahmut himself is enslaved by tyranny, and seeks the kind of Freedom invoked by his enslaved subjects. A number of conflicts appear in the drama, such as reality in contrast to the vision, or the conflict of the present system with the forces that threaten its survival. The form of his lyric poem is a synthesis of dramatic dialogue and poetry.
In “Hellas” Shelley announces the arrival of a new order of things, as he states in the last couplet of his lyric poem: “The world is weary of the past, / O might it die or rest at last!“. His lyric poem echoes the spirit of “The Masque of Anarchy” (1819). In an excerpt from Hellas’ preface, which was censored by the original publisher, he openly announces:
“This is the age of the war of the oppressed against the oppressors.… [A] new race has arisen throughout Europe, nursed in the abhorrence of the opinions which are its chains, and she will continue to produce fresh generations to accomplish that destiny which tyrants foresee and dread”.
“We are all Greeks”
Shelley sees in the Greek case a model for the universal struggle for Justice and Freedom. Even with contemporary standards, the poet’s courage makes an impression in his emblematic preface, as he strikes against the “apathy of the rulers of the civilized world” towards the “descendants of that nation to which they owe their civilisation, rising as it were from the ashes of their ruin”. He categorically states that “We are all Greeks”, proposing the Greek cultural identity as a universal life model. Echoing the romantic idealism of German classicists, he goes on to trace the origins of Western civilization to classical antiquity: “Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece. But for Greece […] we might still have been savages and idolaters; […] The human form and the human mind attained to a perfection in Greece […]”. He never traveled to Greece, but considered the modern Greek “the descendant of these glorious beings […]“.
Shelley shows great courage in his introduction, as he does not hesitate to name reality using a harsh language. The proud attitude he maintained during his short life is also reflected in the criticism he directly addresses to his homeland, England, for its policy:
“The English permit their own oppressors to act according to their natural sympathy with the Turkish tyrant, and to brand upon their name the indelible blot of an alliance with the enemies of domestic happiness, of Christianity and civilization. (…) The wise and generous policy of England would have consisted in establishing the independence of Greece, and in maintaining it both against Russia and the Turk; but when was the oppressor generous or just? ”
In addition to Shelley’s idealism, one can recognize his wit, realism, and courage with which he expresses his political stance. The limitations of harsh reality do not bend his spirit. Some verses of the last choir of Hellas play the rebirth of Greece, which at the same time means the rebirth of the human species:
The world’s great age begins anew / The golden years return […]
A brighter Hellas rears its mountains / From waves serener far […]
Another Athens shall arise / And to remoter time […]
The world is weary of the past / Oh, might it die or rest at last!
Even from a contemporary point of view, the work still impresses with the poet’s unequivocal faith in the struggle. And yet it is one of the less known poems of Percy Shelley.
Percy Shelley’s end and his legacy
A month before his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned in a sudden storm in La Spezia Bay, while returning from Livorno on his boat, Don Juan. He had gone to Livorno to meet his colleague Leigh Hunt. The boat did not capsize, but sank. Some attribute his drowning to a deliberate plan aimed at his life, and not to an accident. It is a fact that an assassination attempt against him took place between 1812-1813 in Tremadog, near Porthmadog, in southwestern Wales, which may have been politically motivated. Another interpretation was that the real target of the attack was Lord Byron, who was thought to be aboard the boat Don Juan, named after his poem. His friend Eduard John Trelawny (1792 – 1881), who removed his dead friend’s heart to hand it over to his widow, narrates about Shelley’s death in his book Recollections of the last days of Shelley and Byron (1858).
Shelley’s body was cremated near Viareggio Beach. The painting by Louis Édouard Fournier, “The Funeral of Shelley” or “The Cremation of Shelley” depicts the poet’s ancient – like cremation ritual on the beach in the presence of his close friends, Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt, Edward John Trelawny and his wife, Mary Shelley. The scene is historically inaccurate, as women did not attend funerals in pre-Victorian times. Also on the day of the ceremony, Hunt remained, crushed, in a carriage, while Byron, who could not stand the spectacle, swam to his boat, Bolivar. The Tory newspaper “The Courier” quite bitterly commented on the occasion of his unfortunate death: “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned; now he knows whether there is a God or no“. Shelley’s ashes were taken to the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. They are located near an ancient pyramid in the city walls. His tomb bears the Latin inscription, “Cor Cordium” (the heart of hearts), to remind him of his love for people. A memorial plaque has been erected in his honor at Westminster Abbey, next to that of his old friend, Lord Byron.
Although unrecognized during his lifetime, the radiance of Percy Shelley’s thought and attitude extended worldwide after his death. His ideas on political action and nonviolent resistance inspired Mahatma Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Martin Luther King Jr.. His political radicalism made him beloved in socialist circles, members of the Labor party and some key representatives of Victorian poetry. He influenced important personalities from the world of arts and intellect, e.g. Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russel, George Bernard Shaw. Both Percy Shelley and his wife, Mary, decisively influenced the philhellenic orientation of Lord Byron, who after Shelley’s death, decided to go to Greece (1823), and offer his own life to the liberation struggle of the Greeks.
Shelley’s idea of an “eternal, universal Greece” influenced Greek poets Kostis Palamas (1859 – 1943) and Angelos Sikelianos (1884 – 1951).
A historic street in the heart of Athens bears the name of the great poet, in Plaka, which intersects with Byron Street, named after Lord Byron. The intersection point of the two streets offers a great view to the Acropolis, symbol of Greek democracy.
Greece and SHP honor the great poet and Philhellene Percy Bysshe Shelley. His poem “Hellas” will always constitute a hope and a lighthouse for Greeks and Western culture
Sources and bibliography
- William St Clair, That Greece might still be free. The Philhellenes in the War of Independence, Open Book Publishers 2008
- Roderick Beaton, From Ancient to Modern: Byron, Shelley, and the Idea of Greece Roderick Beaton, The Athens Dialogues. 2010 ; Vol. 1.
- Roderick Beaton,Ο Shelley και ο Byron για την εθνική ταυτότητα των επαναστατηµένων Ελλήνων του 1821, Ταυτότητες στον ελληνικό κόσμο (από το 1204 έως σήμερα) : Δ’ Ευρωπαϊκό Συνέδριο Νεοελληνικών Σπουδών Γρανάδα, 9-12 Σεπτεμβρίου 2010 : πρακτικά
- Av Mariann Cesilie Løkse, In Defence of Hellas: An analysis of Shelley´s Hellas and Its Reception, Universitetet in Tromsø, 1994
- Γεώργιος Αργυράκος, Ο Φιλελληνισμός ως ευρωπαϊκό «κεκτημένο» και ο ρόλος των εφημερίδων κατά την Επανάσταση του 1821, Εταιρεία για τον Ελληνισμό και τον Φιλελληνισμό, Ιούνιος 2020
- Θωμάς Κυριάκης, Η πρόσληψη «εθνικών αξιών» στην περίπτωση του Ιγνατίου Ουγγροβλαχίας, 30/06/2020, cognoscoteam
- Αναγνώστης Λασκαράτος, Τρεις άθεοι «φιλέλληνες»: Βύρωνας, Σέλλεϋ, Τρελώνη. Έρωτες, ποίηση, τυχοδιωκτισμός και Επανάσταση, Λόγος 11.09.2010 & 18.09.2010