Occasional Mentions of Brentford in Literature

Percy Bysshe Shelley

An Occasional History of Brentford

Robert Rankin


Percy Bysse Shelley


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Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was a poet from the Romantic Period of Literature (c1788-c1837).

The Romantic Period has been described as a “violent reaction to the Enlightenment” and critics such as Margaret Drabble have noted that “socially it championed progressive causes”. One of the causes of the Romantic Period was the French Revolution and the passion revolution inspired in authors. Authors showed a desire for change as well as identifying the right of the individual to have the basic material and intellectual freedoms of life. The language of Romanticism mixes passion with the rational and empirical arguments of the Enlightenment. Romantic themes include an interest in the natural world, the importance of imagination, human relations and the freedom of thought. The storming of the Bastille and the release of the prisoners was a catalyst for many Romantic writers, because if a writer showed support for the revolution he or she showed a desire for a change in power and the basic rights given back to the population.

Shelley spent two years at the Syon House Academy before going to Eton. His time at Syon House Academy will have given him a view on the world which could be seen through his work. Syon Park House, which housed the academy, was demolished in 1953 and is now where the Royal Mail Sorting Office is located. It is believed that it might have been the dwelling of Pochahontas between 1616 and 1617. Close by is Syon House which belongs to the Duke of Northumberland. It housed Henry VIII’s fifth wife Catherine Howard in 1541 and 1542 before her execution for adultery and betraying the King.

Syon Park itself, contained a Butterfly House which was closed down as the Duke of Northumberland wanted a hotel on the site instead. There were plans to relocate the Butterfly House in Gunnersbury Park, however no progress was made and it appears that the idea has been shelved. Currently construction work is ongoing for a Hilton hotel. Also in Syon Park is the children’s play area Snakes and Ladders.

Shelley is most famous for Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind, and The Masque of Anarchy.

Ozymandias (1818)

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The line “Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” implies that the works of Ozymandias cause despair. This is a reflection on the governing bodies of Britain at the time and is a key theme of the Romantic Period. The frustration in the Romantic Period with the ruling classes was due to the 1688 Glorious Revolution where the King was returned to the throne, however his powers were severely weakened. It was hoped that more people would be given the opportunity to vote as during this period Parliament consisted of rotten boroughs. The most famous of these was Old Sarum, near Salisbury where, in 1831 eleven years after Shelley’s death, there were only eleven registered voters, whereas Manchester was not represented until the 1832 Great Reform Act.

1st Part of Ode to the West Wind (1819)

O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill;

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!

The opening segment shows a different aspect of the romantic period, the sublime and nature. The sublime is something which inspires awe. An example would be a tornado. While on a physical level it causes destruction on the path that it makes and its shape inspire people to look in awe at nature taking its course. Nature reveals the power that literature has over the world and the vivid descriptions of the colours “Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red” paint a picture in the readers mind of autumn and how nature influences the world. Nature’s destructive capability links it with the sublime as an electric storm does when you see the forked lightning in the sky and hear the rumble of thunder. It could be argued that being educated at Syon House Academy showed Shelley the nature of the gardens there and influenced him in his later life.

1st 5 verses of The Masque of Anarchy (1819)

As I lay asleep in Italy,
There came a voice from over the sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.


I met Murder on the way--
He had a mask like Castlereagh--
Very smooth he look'd yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him:


All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them humanhearts to chew,
Which from his wide cloak he drew.


Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Lord E--, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell;


And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knockedout by, them.

The fact that this poem has anarchy in the title reflects Shelley’s view of the British system. He lists crimes such as murder and fraud as he might have believed that the ruling classes did whatever they could in order to stay in power. After leaving Syon House Academy Shelley went on to Eton and then to University College, Oxford. It would be there that Shelley would have encountered a large proportion of individuals who would be heading for government and the early influences at Syon House Academy will have had a great bearing on Shelley’s poetry.

Tom Moore

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September 20, 2010

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