Percy Bysshe Shelley by Martin RowsonWhen you read the philosophical works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, it is hard to believe that they are the work of one the most celebrated poets in the English language. In fact some of us might say the same of the poems, even such anthology warhorses as “Adonais”, “Ode to the West Wind” or “To a Skylark”. But no one could deny that the life Shelley led was an interesting one. He was a poor little rich boy, born in Sussex in 1792; after Eton he went to Oxford, revolted against his aristocratic father and eloped with a 16-year-old girl; ten years later he was living in high bohemian style on the Italian Riviera, already on his second marriage, and five or six times a father, when a rash trip on his sporty high-masted boat ended in death by drowning just short of his thirtieth birthday. Back in London a Tory newspaper, the Courier, reported the watery end of a “writer of some infidel poetry”, adding sententiously, “Now he knows whether there is a God or no.”

There is a lot of spoiled-child selfishness to the story, and plenty of romance and glamour as well; but not enough, some would say, to excuse such poetical crimes as “thou, who chariotest … the wingèd seeds” (as Shelley apostrophised the west wind) or “bird thou never wert” (as he said to the skylark). The critic F.R. Leavis found Shelley “unexacting about sense”, and unreadable to “the mature”, and T.S. Eliot dismissed Shelleyism as “an affair of adolescence”.

But Leavis and Eliot were overlooking the readership that has done most to keep the banner of Shelley flying: not swooning teenagers but militant bands of self-educated radicals – democrats, freethinkers, infidels, atheists and socialists – for whom Shelley was not just a poet but a pioneer of personal freedom, anarchic revolt and popular enlightenment. His political fantasy Queen Mab, first published in 1813, was banned for its advocacy of social revolution and its tirades against “kings, priests and statesmen”, but when the publisher of an early, unauthorised reprint was prosecuted and sent to prison for six months, plenty of others stepped in to take his place. Pirate editions of Queen Mab circulated widely in the1820s and 1830s, and in the 1880s, when Shelley’s pious descendants formed the Shelley Society to detoxify the poet’s reputation, they were a little taken aback when Edward Aveling (friend of Friedrich Engels) and Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl Marx) offered them trenchant lectures on “Shelley’s Socialism”. George Bernard Shaw piled in by reminding them that Shelley was not only a Republican, a Leveller and a Radical, an advocate of incest and an enemy to the marriage bond, but also an out-and-out “militant Atheist”. Shaw also claimed to have it on good authority that Karl Marx had described Shelley as the inspiration of the Chartist movement (though he must have known that in Marx’s mouth these words were at best equivocal praise); and it was in any case a commonplace to describe Queen Mab as “the Chartists’ Bible”. Annie Besant and the National Secular Society would promote it as one of their “atheistic classics”, but Edward Aveling got himself into trouble with the Society by issuing a pamphlet linking Shelley with Marx as a an advocate of ruthless revolution against the entire system of capitalistic Christianity.

Shelley’s reputation as a bold firebrand stems in part from his anonymous pamphlet “The Necessity of Atheism”, first published in February 1811, and later reprinted as an appendix to Queen Mab. It was not much to look at – just four small sheets of paper folded in half – but it certainly changed the course of Shelley’s life. He was 18 years old at the time, in his second term at University College Oxford, and relishing his personal freedom after six miserable years at Eton. He had a reputation for eccentricity, carelessness and disobedience – he was famous for refusing to sort out the heaps of books, clothes and scientific instruments that cluttered his college rooms – but he was also an absolute toff, with every expectation of settling down, after sowing some wild oats, to a respectable political career: his father, Sir Timothy Shelley, the Whig Member of Parliament for New Shoreham in Sussex, had promised to pay for any youthful indiscretions and hand him his parliamentary seat as soon as he reached the age of 21.

But then the young gentleman wrote “The Necessity of Atheism”, and got a printer near the family home to run off a few dozen copies. He took the precaution of identifying himself simply as AN ATHEIST, and sent a copy to every Bishop of the Church of England, though he did not succeed in arousing their ire or even their interest. He then took some spares to a bookshop in Oxford High Street, just across the road from his College. He put them on display in the window, and asked that they be sold for sixpence each – a price which, apart from anything else, would protect him from any accusation of putting them within reach of inquisitive plebeians. Less than an hour had passed when they caught the attention of a senior member of the university, who established the identity of their author and had them burned in the back kitchen of the shop – all except one, which he presented to the Fellows of University College. Shelley was arraigned before the College authorities a few days later, and on 25 March 1811 they expelled him for refusing to answer their questions. A breach with Sir Timothy was now inevitable, and Shelley’s future suddenly looked much less bright than before, but considerably more interesting.

As part of his marketing campaign, Shelley pretended to be an elderly clergymen who had chanced on a copy of “The Necessity of Atheism” and was now writing to a colleague for help and advice: the arguments of the pamphlet struck him as so powerful that he was now inclined to renounce the faith that had hitherto been the rock of his life, abandoning himself to a miserable old age. The claim was barely credible however: Shelley’s argument – which hardly extended to 1,000 words, despite wads of rhetorical padding – was bland and unoriginal. Anyone who had read their Locke and Hume (the authors Shelley himself had been studying in his first term at Oxford) could have anticipated Shelley’s line of attack. There were only three sources of knowledge, he claimed, namely the senses, reason, and testimony. But in the first place, God was obviously not an object of sensory knowledge; secondly, the Universe could have existed from all eternity, in which case there was no need for the services of a creator to bring it into existence; and finally, it was more likely that supposed witnesses of signature activities of God such as miracles were mistaken, than that their reports were true. Hence the three “sources of conviction” were all barren, and “every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity.”

Shelley ended with a portentous “Q.E.D.”, as if he had proved a geometrical theorem; but no sincere believer need have been surprised or troubled by his argument. Christians like to think of their religion as a historical tradition rather than a metaphysical system, and many of them, especially Protestants, regard belief as a matter of grace rather than proof, or faith rather than knowledge. The jejune claim that “there is no proof of the existence of a Deity” held no terrors for them, and could well be accepted as compatible with perfect orthodoxy.

But the pamphlet caused offence all the same. George Bernard Shaw, writing in 1892 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Shelley’s birth, explained the reason why. The problem was not that he was an atheist – atheism had after all been a well-known private pastime amongst the aristocracy for centuries – but that “he actually called himself one, and urged others to follow his example.” Even then, his offence was not that he doubted the existence of God. Very few Christians believed in God, Shaw said, especially in England: what they believed in was the Bible, and to them atheism was simply a failure to hold their holy book in proper esteem. On the other hand Shaw went on to claim that Shelley “lived and died professedly, almost boastfully, godless,” and while this description captures Shelley’s reckless tone, it leaves us in the dark about the exact meaning of his atheism.

Shelley was not in fact sufficiently godless to deny the existence of a divine principle altogether; and it might be more accurate to describe him as a deist rather than an atheist. If the distance between Deism and atheism seems vast to 21st-century eyes, that only shows the difference that 200 years can make: in Shelley’s time, they were regarded as next-door neighbours. Deism meant treating God not as the creator, supervisor and moral ruler of the world, with a close paternal interest in human affairs, but as an abstract, impersonal, impassive principle that animates the universe; and from the point of view of orthodox believers Deism was no better than atheism. Once, before their final breach, when Shelley tried to get his father to turn against Christianity, he described himself as trying to “Deistify” him. And in Queen Mab he gave a positive spin to his Deism by singing the praises not of God’s providence but of the order of Nature (“Spirit of Nature! all-sufficing Power!/ Necessity, thou mother of the world!”). Nature, for Shelley, was a creative force that infused the infinite universe, making a mockery of old-fashioned ideas of creation as the event that initiated the world. “There is no God!” as the voice of Queen Mab’s fairy proclaims. Nature’s cycle of life, death and rebirth – “infinity within,/ Infinity without” – leaves no room for the elsewhere-God of Christian tradition.

A note directs us to the appendix where Shelley reprinted “The Necessity of Atheism”, but with several additions designed to remove any doubts about his attitude to the God question. God is not a fact, he said, but a hypothesis, just as gravitational attraction was a hypothesis in the natural philosophy of Newton. “God is an hypothesis, and as such, stands in need of proof,” Shelley explained; hence the statement “there is no God” should not be taken too broadly: “this negation must be understood to affect solely a creative Deity,” and once that was understood, “the hypothesis of a pervading spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.”

Shelley hated priests as much as he hated governments. He despised the Bible and raged against the kind of pious killjoy moralising that stood between him and the life he wanted to lead. But if atheism means a refusal to believe in anything that might be called a God, then Shelley was not much of an atheist after all. Indeed he was capable of using the word as an insult, and on one occasion he denounced his grandfather, Bysshe Shelley – an adventurer from New Jersey with an engrossing passion for enriching himself – as “a complete Atheist who builds all his hopes on annihilation”. It was said that Shelley won himself a reputation as an atheist while still a schoolboy at Eton, but his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg observed that as far as Eton was concerned, “the word Atheist was used not … in a modern but in an ancient and classical sense, meaning an Antitheist, rather than an Atheist; for an opposer and contemner of the gods, not one who denies their existence.” The notion of atheism, when applied to Shelley, is not as precise as a philosopher might desire, or a poet for that matter; but as he himself once observed, “it is a good word of abuse.”