“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.” Those idyllic words, taken from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, jangle discordantly with his vitriolic atheistic utterances elsewhere: “Oh how I wish I were the Antichrist, that it were mine to crush the Demon, to hurl him to his native Hell never to rise again.”
This strange mixture of religious antipathy and acute poetic sensitivity springs from a troubled past. Shelley was born on 4 August 1792, the son of a country baronet. Hateful years at Eton followed, where he was subjected to the degrading practice of fagging, and its concomitant evil, flogging. He later equated his stay at Eton to a prison sentence.
Worse was to follow. While up at Oxford he penned a tract, The Necessity of Atheism. It sent shudders through the Establishment, and caused a monumental breach with his father, who insisted that Shelley publicly revoke his views. He flatly refused, and was disowned by his family.
The subsequent contretemps with the authorities at Oxford was even more dramatic. He was accused of being “a hideous blasphemer who indited pages of raving atheism”. Copies of his pamphlet were sent to all Oxford dons, and to the clergy and bishops of the Established Church. Episcopal waistcoat buttons burst at the seams, and pamphlets were burnt by the dozen. Shelley left Oxford with the imposing title “Apostle of Atheism”.
On the domestic front, matters were no less bleak. He fled to Scotland with a 16-year-old girl, Harriet Westwood, the daughter of a tea- and coffee-house owner. Shelley fathered a child by her, and then turned to pastures new in Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the feminist author of Frankenstein. The desolate Harriet committed suicide, and Shelley sailed to Italy, and soon became involved with the “sad, bad, and dangerous” Lord Byron and his unsavoury coterie. It was not to last long. On 8 July 1822, Shelley went boating in the Bay of Spezia, and drowned.
THE Necessity of Atheism is surprisingly bland: it consists of well-worn theology and run-of-the-mill philosophy. It is based on the assumption that God can be known only through the senses. Since there is no empirical way of proving his existence, it follows that he is imaginary, a human construct conjured up from a dream world.
Shelley’s next target is the “first cause” argument: it is nonsensical, he declares, to say that God must exist or else the universe would not have come into being. Shelley dismisses it summarily, saying that the universe has endured throughout eternity, and that is all you can say about it.
What really set the cat among the pigeons was Shelley’s arrogant closing sentence: “Every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a deity.” To enforce the point, he ended the document with “QED”, the traditional ending for a mathematical theorem, implying that, with a few deft philosophical strokes of the pen, he had destroyed God once and for all.
Shelley’s argument is a timely reminder that we should not view God as a supranatural being who is mapping out the world’s history arbitrarily. He is the one who lies beyond all knowing: infinite, holy, there in both the darkness and the light. As the mystic Angelus Silenius said: “God is a pure no-thing, concealed in now and here: the less you reach for him, the more he will appear.”
SHELLEY also refers, rightly, to the massacres that have been inflicted on humanity over the years in the name of Christ, and that can be met only with prayer, remorse, and sadness. “May Infinite Eternity blast me, here I swear that I will never forgive Christianity!” he told a friend at university. But his words also urge us on to the present. Those of us with faith must turn with urgent longing to peace, tolerance, and mutual understanding. The past can be redeemed only with a great surge of Christ-filled love, and a refusal to countenance discord, bigotry, and exclusiveness
No less serious is Shelley’s charge that the Church has hijacked the truth. He does not beat about the bush: “And priests dare babble of a God of Peace, Even whilst their hands are red with guiltless blood, Murdering the while, uprooting every germ Of truth, exterminating, spoiling all, Making the earth a slaughter-house!” It is strong stuff, heady with hyperbole, but Shelley has veered off course here. The Church has not hijacked the truth, nor can it ever do so, because the Truth is God, and nobody can grasp the Eternal.
What the Church has done is confuse opinion with absolute truth. It is all too easy to put forward statements on matters such as morality, the priesthood, sexuality, and sacrament, and to bolster them up by claiming that they are in harmony with God and his will. This gives them a false authenticity. God alone is truth; and, since we can never reach the heart of God, truth remains always beyond us, mysterious, clouded.
All we can do is rest quietly in the divine presence, as R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet, articulates: “But the silence in the mind is when we live best, within listening distance of the silence we call God.” Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, expressed this sublimely: “For I, Solitude, am thine own self: I, Nothingness, am thy All. I, Silence, am thy Amen!”
SHELLEY speaks facetiously of the Bible, and his run-down of its content is a ludicrous travesty. He maintains that God created a beautiful garden in six days, placed human beings in it, and then stirred things up by throwing a devil-snake on to the scene, which results in humanity, having to live with the eternal misery of sin. This, he asserts with crude sarcasm, is the book that we choose to put into the hands of innocent children.
Despite the naïvety of his approach, Shelley is to be thanked for warning us of the dangers of adopting a fundamentalist view of a sacred text. The Bible is a treasury of religious myth, history, psalmody, parable, and prayer. It is there for us to use as an envisioning text, a source of worship, a guide for spiritual journeying. To take it literally is to miss its holiness, intricacy, wisdom, and glory.
Extraordinarily enough, however, there is a strong hint of spirituality lying beneath Shelley’s outward swagger. It is as if he occasionally loses his atheistic nerve. He speaks of Keats’s death in an ode that scintillates with holiness: “From the great morning of the world when first God dawn’d on Chaos: in its stream immers’d, The lamps of Heaven flash with a softer light; All baser things pant with life’s sacred thirst.”
Nor does Shelley reject prayer. At a time of deep grief, words pour out Godward: “As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need. O lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!” Sometimes, he hovers between the temporal and the eternal: “Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, Stains the white radiance of Eternity.” Even the mystics could not better that.
So I thank Shelley on many accounts. He points to the dangers of organised religion, and encourages us to find a new vision. He depicts a natural world of great beauty, enriching it with sublime moments when eternity is near. Atheism, as Shelley points out, does not hold all the aces.
The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest, living in Yorkshire.