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Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem.

Introductory Note



ECRASEZ L'INFAME!
Corréspondance de Voltaire.

Avia Pieridum peragro loca, nullius ante
Trita solo, juvat integros accedere fonteis;
Atque haurire: juvatque novos decerpere flores.
.   .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

Unde prius nulli velarint tempora Musæ.
Primum quod magnis doceo de rebus; et arctis
Religionum animos nodis exsolvere pergo.
LUCRETIUS, lib. iv.

[Greek]
ARCHIMEDES.

'During my existence I have incessantly speculated, thought and read.' So Shelley wrote when he was yet not quite twenty years old; and the statement fairly represents the history of his boyhood and youth. Queen Mab was composed in 1812-13, in its present form, and issued during the summer of the latter year, when Shelley was just twenty-one. It embodies substantially the contents of his mind at that period, especially those speculative, religious and philanthropic opinions to the expression of which his 'passion for reforming the world' was the incentive; and, poetically, it is his first work of importance. Much of its subject-matter had been previously treated by him. The figure of Ahasuerus, which was a permanent imaginative motive for him, had been the centre of a juvenile poem, The Wandering Jew, in which Medwin claims to have collaborated with him, as early as 1809-10; and youthful verse written before 1812 is clearly incorporated in Queen Mab. It may fairly be regarded, poetically and intellectually, as the result of the three preceding years, from the eighteenth to the twenty-first of the poet's life.

The poem owes much to Shelley's studies in the Latin and French authors. The limitations of his poetical training and taste in English verse are justly stated by Mrs. Shelley, in her note:

'Our earlier English poetry was almost unknown to him. The love and knowledge of nature developed by Wordsworth--the lofty melody and mysterious beauty of Coleridge's poetry--and the wild fantastic machinery and gorgeous scenery adopted by Southey, composed his favorite reading. The rhythm of Queen Mab was founded on that of Thalaba, and the first few lines bear a striking resemblance in spirit, though not in idea, to the opening of that poem. His fertile imagination, and ear tuned to the finest sense of harmony, preserved him from imitation. Another of his favorite books was the poem of Gebir, by Walter Savage Landor.'

Queen Mab is, in form, what would be expected from such preferences. His own Notes indicate the prose sources of his thought. He dissented from all that was established in society, for the most part very radically, and was a believer in the perfectibility of man by moral means. Here, again, Mrs. Shelley's note is most just:

'He was animated to greater zeal by compassion for his fellow-creatures. His sympathy was excited by the misery with which the world is bursting. He witnessed the sufferings of the poor, and was aware of the evils of ignorance. He desired to induce every rich man to despoil himself of superfluity, and to create a brotherhood of property and service, and was ready to be the first to lay down the advantages of his birth. He was of too uncompromising a disposition to join any party. He did not in his youth look forward to gradual improvement: nay, in those days of intolerance, now almost forgotten, it seemed as easy to look forward to the sort of millennium of freedom and brotherhood, which he thought the proper state of mankind, as to the present reign of moderation and improvement. Ill health made him believe that his race would soon be run; that a year or two was all he had of life. He desired that these years should be useful and illustrious. He saw, in a fervent call on his fellow-creatures to share alike the blessings of the creation, to love and serve each other, the noblest work that life and time permitted him. In this spirit he composed Queen Mab.'

Shelley's own opinion of the poem changed in later years. He always referred to it as written in his nineteenth year, when it was apparently begun, though its final form at any rate dates from the next year. In 1817 he wrote of it as follows:

...'Full of those errors which belong to youth, as far as imagery and language and a connected plan is concerned. But it was a sincere overflowing of the heart and mind, and that at a period when they are most uncorrupted and pure. It is the author's boast, and it constitutes no small portion of his happiness, that, after six years [this period supports the date 1811] of added experience and reflection, the doctrine of equality, and liberty, and disinterestedness, and entire unbelief in religion of any sort, to which this poem is devoted, have gained rather than lost that beauty and that grandeur which first determined him to devote his life to the investigation and inculcation of them.'

In 1821, when the poem was printed by W. Clark, Shelley, in a letter of protest to the editor of the Examiner, describes it in a different strain:

'A poem, entitled Queen Mab, was written by me, at the age of eighteen, I dare say in a sufficiently intemperate spirit--but even then was not intended for publication, and a few copies only were struck off, to be distributed among my personal friends. I have not seen this production for several years; I doubt not but that it is perfectly worthless in point of literary composition; and that in all that concerns moral and political speculation, as well as in the subtler discriminations of metaphysical and religious doctrine, it is still more crude and immature. I am a devoted enemy to religious, political, and domestic oppression; and I regret this publication not so much from literary vanity, as because I fear it is better fitted to injure than to serve the sacred cause of freedom.'

Queen Mab, as Shelley here states, was privately issued. The name of the printer was cut out of nearly all copies, for fear of prosecution. The edition was of two hundred and fifty copies, of which about seventy were put in circulation by gift. Many pirated editions were issued after Shelley's death both in England and America, and the poem was especially popular with the Owenites. By it Shelley was long most widely known, and it remains one of the most striking of his works in popular apprehension. Though at last he abandoned it, because of its crudities, he had felt interest in it after its first issue and had partly recast it, and included a portion of this revision in his next volume, Alastor, 1816, as the Dæmon of the World. The radical character of Queen Mab, which was made a part of the evidence against his character, on the occasion of the trial which resulted in his being deprived of the custody of his children by Lord Eldon, was a main element in the contemporary obloquy in which his name was involved in England, though very few persons could ever have read the poem then; but it may be doubted whether in the end it did not help his fame by the fascination it exercises over a certain class of minds in the first stages of social and intellectual revolt or angry unrest so widespread in this century.

The dedication To Harriet ***** is to his first wife.

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