by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Notes on Queen Mab


Shelley was eighteen when he wrote "Queen Mab"; he never published it.
When it was written, he had come to the decision that he was too young
to be a 'judge of controversies'; and he was desirous of acquiring 'that
sobriety of spirit which is the characteristic of true heroism.' But he
never doubted the truth or utility of his opinions; and, in printing and
privately distributing "Queen Mab", he believed that he should further
their dissemination, without occasioning the mischief either to others
or himself that might arise from publication. It is doubtful whether he
would himself have admitted it into a collection of his works. His
severe classical taste, refined by the constant study of the Greek
poets, might have discovered defects that escape the ordinary reader;
and the change his opinions underwent in many points would have
prevented him from putting forth the speculations of his boyish days.
But the poem is too beautiful in itself, and far too remarkable as the
production of a boy of eighteen, to allow of its being passed over:
besides that, having been frequently reprinted, the omission would be
vain. In the former edition certain portions were left out, as shocking
the general reader from the violence of their attack on religion. I
myself had a painful feeling that such erasures might be looked upon as
a mark of disrespect towards the author, and am glad to have the
opportunity of restoring them. The notes also are reprinted entire—not
because they are models of reasoning or lessons of truth, but because
Shelley wrote them, and that all that a man at once so distinguished and
so excellent ever did deserves to be preserved. The alterations his
opinions underwent ought to be recorded, for they form his history.
A series of articles was published in the "New Monthly Magazine" during
the autumn of the year 1832, written by a man of great talent, a
fellow-collegian and warm friend of Shelley: they describe admirably the
state of his mind during his collegiate life. Inspired with ardour for
the acquisition of knowledge, endowed with the keenest sensibility and
with the fortitude of a martyr, Shelley came among his fellow-creatures,
congregated for the purposes of education, like a spirit from another
sphere; too delicately organized for the rough treatment man uses
towards man, especially in the season of youth, and too resolute in
carrying out his own sense of good and justice, not to become a victim.
To a devoted attachment to those he loved he added a determined
resistance to oppression. Refusing to fag at Eton, he was treated with
revolting cruelty by masters and boys: this roused instead of taming his
spirit, and he rejected the duty of obedience when it was enforced by
menaces and punishment. To aversion to the society of his
fellow-creatures, such as he found them when collected together in
societies, where one egged on the other to acts of tyranny, was joined
the deepest sympathy and compassion; while the attachment he felt for
individuals, and the admiration with which he regarded their powers and
their virtues, led him to entertain a high opinion of the perfectibility
of human nature; and he believed that all could reach the highest grade
of moral improvement, did not the customs and prejudices of society
foster evil passions and excuse evil actions.
The oppression which, trembling at every nerve yet resolute to heroism,
it was his ill-fortune to encounter at school and at college, led him to
dissent in all things from those whose arguments were blows, whose faith
appeared to engender blame and hatred. 'During my existence,' he wrote
to a friend in 1812, 'I have incessantly speculated, thought, and read.'
His readings were not always well chosen; among them were the works of
the French philosophers: as far as metaphysical argument went, he
temporarily became a convert. At the same time, it was the cardinal
article of his faith that, if men were but taught and induced to treat
their fellows with love, charity, and equal rights, this earth would
realize paradise. He looked upon religion, as it is professed, and above
all practised, as hostile instead of friendly to the cultivation of
those virtues which would make men brothers.
Can this be wondered at? At the age of seventeen, fragile in health and
frame, of the purest habits in morals, full of devoted generosity and
universal kindness, glowing with ardour to attain wisdom, resolved at
every personal sacrifice to do right, burning with a desire for
affection and sympathy,—he was treated as a reprobate, cast forth as a
The cause was that he was sincere; that he believed the opinions which
he entertained to be true. And he loved truth with a martyr's love; he
was ready to sacrifice station and fortune, and his dearest affections,
at its shrine. The sacrifice was demanded from, and made by, a youth of
seventeen. It is a singular fact in the history of society in the
civilized nations of modern times that no false step is so irretrievable
as one made in early youth. Older men, it is true, when they oppose
their fellows and transgress ordinary rules, carry a certain prudence or
hypocrisy as a shield along with them. But youth is rash; nor can it
imagine, while asserting what it believes to be true, and doing what it
believes to be right, that it should be denounced as vicious, and
pursued as a criminal.
Shelley possessed a quality of mind which experience has shown me to be
of the rarest occurrence among human beings: this was his UNWORLDLINESS.
The usual motives that rule men, prospects of present or future
advantage, the rank and fortune of those around, the taunts and
censures, or the praise, of those who were hostile to him, had no
influence whatever over his actions, and apparently none over his
thoughts. It is difficult even to express the simplicity and directness
of purpose that adorned him. Some few might be found in the history of
mankind, and some one at least among his own friends, equally
disinterested and scornful, even to severe personal sacrifices, of every
baser motive. But no one, I believe, ever joined this noble but passive
virtue to equal active endeavours for the benefit of his friends and
mankind in general, and to equal power to produce the advantages he
desired. The world's brightest gauds and its most solid advantages were
of no worth in his eyes, when compared to the cause of what he
considered truth, and the good of his fellow-creatures. Born in a
position which, to his inexperienced mind, afforded the greatest
facilities to practise the tenets he espoused, he boldly declared the
use he would make of fortune and station, and enjoyed the belief that he
should materially benefit his fellow-creatures by his actions; while,
conscious of surpassing powers of reason and imagination, it is not
strange that he should, even while so young, have believed that his
written thoughts would tend to disseminate opinions which he believed
conducive to the happiness of the human race.
If man were a creature devoid of passion, he might have said and done
all this with quietness. But he was too enthusiastic, and too full of
hatred of all the ills he witnessed, not to scorn danger. Various
disappointments tortured, but could not tame, his soul. The more enmity
he met, the more earnestly he became attached to his peculiar views, and
hostile to those of the men who persecuted him.
He was animated to greater zeal by compassion for his fellow-creatures.
His sympathy was excited by the misery with which the world is burning.
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".
He was a lover of the wonderful and wild in literature, but had not
fostered these tastes at their genuine sources—the romances and
chivalry of the middle ages—but in the perusal of such German works as
were current in those days. Under the influence of these he, at the age
of fifteen, wrote two short prose romances of slender merit. The
sentiments and language were exaggerated, the composition imitative and
poor. He wrote also a poem on the subject of Ahasuerus—being led to it
by a German fragment he picked up, dirty and torn, in Lincoln's Inn
Fields. This fell afterwards into other hands, and was considerably
altered before it was printed. 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 favourite 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 favourite books was the
poem of "Gebir" by Walter Savage Landor. From his boyhood he had a
wonderful facility of versification, which he carried into another
language; and his Latin school-verses were composed with an ease and
correctness that procured for him prizes, and caused him to be resorted
to by all his friends for help. He was, at the period of writing "Queen
Mab", a great traveller within the limits of England, Scotland, and
Ireland. His time was spent among the loveliest scenes of these
countries. Mountain and lake and forest were his home; the phenomena of
Nature were his favourite study. He loved to inquire into their causes,
and was addicted to pursuits of natural philosophy and chemistry, as far
as they could be carried on as an amusement. These tastes gave truth and
vivacity to his descriptions, and warmed his soul with that deep
admiration for the wonders of Nature which constant association with her
He never intended to publish "Queen Mab" as it stands; but a few years
after, when printing "Alastor", he extracted a small portion which he
entitled "The Daemon of the World". In this he changed somewhat the
versification, and made other alterations scarcely to be called
Some years after, when in Italy, a bookseller published an edition of
"Queen Mab" as it originally stood. Shelley was hastily written to by
his friends, under the idea that, deeply injurious as the mere
distribution of the poem had proved, the publication might awaken fresh
persecutions. At the suggestion of these friends he wrote a letter on
the subject, printed in the "Examiner" newspaper—with which I close
this history of his earliest work.
'Having heard that a poem entitled "Queen Mab" has been surreptitiously
published in London, and that legal proceedings have been instituted
against the publisher, I request the favour of your insertion of the
following explanation of the affair, as it relates to me.
'A poem entitled "Queen Mab" was written by me at the age of eighteen, I
daresay 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. I have directed my solicitor to apply to
Chancery for an injunction to restrain the sale; but, after the
precedent of Mr. Southey's "Wat Tyler" (a poem written, I believe, at
the same age, and with the same unreflecting enthusiasm), with little
hope of success.
'Whilst I exonerate myself from all share in having divulged opinions
hostile to existing sanctions, under the form, whatever it may be, which
they assume in this poem, it is scarcely necessary for me to protest
against the system of inculcating the truth of Christianity or the
excellence of Monarchy, however true or however excellent they may be,
by such equivocal arguments as confiscation and imprisonment, and
invective and slander, and the insolent violation of the most sacred
ties of Nature and society.
'I am your obliged and obedient servant,
'Pisa, June 22, 1821.'