Sunday, 26 August 2012
Poem Review: Queen Mab
Title: Queen Mab
Author: Percy Bysshe Shelley
Links to Devon: This was written at Lynmouth, North Devon, where Shelley was staying with his first wife in 1812.
When I read this: 22nd-24th August, 2012
Summary: This poem is written in nine cantos, with an opening dedication to Shelley’s first wife, Harriet. Whilst Ianthe sleeps, the fairy Queen Mab visits her. Having judged the girl to be “worthy of the envied boon that awaits the good and sincere”, Queen Mab takes Ianthe’s soul back to her palace to reveal visions of the past, present and future. The past and present reveal the brutality and oppression that man inflicts upon himself and others, and are both quite bleak. Here, Shelley is particularly critical of religion’s role in man’s degradation and the idea that such behaviour is simply human nature. The future is a more utopian vision where man has finally cast off all greed and religion, and learnt to live at peace with all around him. Having witnessed all that Queen Mab wishes to show, Ianthe is returned to her body, where she awakes to see Henry nearby “watching her sleep with looks of speechless love”.
Strengths: The beginning of this poem is beautiful. Shelley skilfully uses the poetic form to describe Ianthe’s peaceful sleep, the arrival of Queen Mab in her majestic chariot, and their journey across space “radiant with million constellations, tinged with shades of infinite colour” to “Mab’s ethereal palace” which “looked o’er the immence of Heaven”. In fact, Shelley’s description of space contains some of my favourite lines of poetry! I was entranced by the wondrous images his words conjured in my mind’s eye.
Weaknesses: I disagree quite strongly with a lot of Shelley’s philosophy as described in this poem. I find him particularly harsh on religion. I am aware that many evil acts have been committed, both in the distant past and some more recent, by men alleging that they act in the Name of God, but to consider all religion evil because of this is to overlook a great deal more compassionate deeds, and ignores what is actually written in the Holy books of most religions. I particularly found Shelley’s inclusion of the Wandering Jew legend rather scathing and contradictory. For instance, if Queen Mab, who appears to be some kind of celestial authority, asserts confidently that “there is no God” then how come, shortly after her statement, the Wandering Jew claims that there is “an almighty God, and vengeful as almighty”? I also find some of Shelley’s judgement quite hypocritical, given certain events in his life where I consider him not to have acted nobly, although I suppose this was written before much of that occurred.
Overall Opinion: If this had simply been a fairy tale that finished shortly after Ianthe’s arrival at the fairy palace or had instead veered off on a different course, this could well have been one of my favourite poems; however, I found the didactic, judgemental tone of the rest of the poem quite off-putting.
Rating (out of five):
The next review will be of Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson...