Percy Bysshe Shelley's Queen Mab in Context

by JoHarrington

‘Turn thee, surpassing Spirit! Much yet remains unscanned.' Can 'Queen Mab' be truly understood without invoking the history and the times?

August 2012 is the bicentenary of 'Queen Mab'. The poet's words live on.

But in order to understand where these ideas were forged, we have to go back to the beginning. Into the politics, the Celtic ideals, the drugs and lost loves.

We have to undertake a journey as intoxicating, impassioned and fueled with dreams, as anything that Mab Herself could induce. Or maybe She was there from the very start...

Let's go to Wales, in April 1812. Officers seized his papers and the bard lies dying.

The Celtic Dawn of 'Queen Mab'

The impetus behind the poetry came from revolutionary writers and trips through the Celtic heartlands. The ideas streamed in wild Wales.

Percy Bysshe Shelley thought that he was dying. He had been ill for some weeks and it seemed to him that his mortality was dripping away.

He was nineteen years old; and it had been a tumultuous year.

Fourteen months previously, Shelley was kicked out of Oxford University for writing The Necessity of Atheism. He hadn't expected that.

He and his friend, Thomas Hogg, declared themselves martyrs, at the hands of repressive educators. But it didn't stop the fact that neither was welcome back in those hallowed halls.

Shelley wasn't exactly welcomed back with open arms into his parents' home either.  As far as Timothy and Elizabeth Shelley were concerned, Thomas Hogg was a bad influence on their son. He would receive neither shelter nor funds, while he was hanging around with his friend.

Eighteen year old Shelley walked from Sussex in England to the Elan Valley in Wales, to stay with his maternal cousin instead.  He wasn't prepared to lose the friendship. 

But there he received a letter, which had him rushing off to London.  And caused him to become completely disowned by his father.

Harriet Westbrook, his younger sister's friend, was complaining about the restrictions placed upon her by her own parents. Shelley collected her from her home and the couple fled to Edinburgh.

They were married on August 28th 1811. Harriet had turned sixteen on August 1st; and Shelley nineteen just three days later.

It wasn't her age, nor the elopement per se, which upset Timothy Shelley.  It was the fact that Harriet Westbrook was the daughter of a coffee house owner and innkeeper. Her station in life was far below that of her new husband!

By their first wedding anniversary, the young couple were desperately trying to buy a house in Wales. It was called Nantgwilt (Wild Stream) and they were already renting it  The idea was that it would be a free love commune, wherein Shelley could live out the last months of his fading life.

They were refused the sale. And, incidentally, he was not dying.

This was where the main stanzas of Queen Mab were written, but not where the ideas were conceived. The darkly rugged landscape of Wales was merely the artistic forge. The inspiration had come in Ireland, and it was blown into an inferno in Devon.

Percy and Harriet Shelley had been very busy indeed.

Biographies of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Read these life stories to understand more about the political agitating and rebellion of this Romantic poet.
Percy Bysshe Shelley: A BiographyShelley: The Pursuit (New York Review...Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for ...

Shaping Dreams and Ideas in the North of England

The seeds of 'Queen Mab' can be traced to frustrating conversations in Cumbria. Shelley discovered that the rebellious spirit of youth can burn out in the realities of middle age.

To say that Shelley was interested in politics and social reform is a bit of an understatement. It fired up his life in the winter of 1811 and spring of 1812.

The couple, along with Thomas Hogg and Harriet's sister Eliza, had fled to Greystoke in the Lake District.  This was about as far away as Shelley could get to his father in Sussex and still be in England.

But it was also where two of his favorite poets lived.  Wordsworth proved discouraging to visitors; but Robert Southey (pictured left) welcomed them into his home. 

The thirty-eight year old poet had railed against bigotry and tyranny in his youth. He'd settled down as he'd got older. He now appeared to have accepted the injustices of officialdom.

Some spirited discussions took place at his hearth. Shelley was passionate about politics, all but accusing Southey of selling out.  Southey was fond of the teenager, but dismissed much of what he had to say as the folly of youth.

However, the encounter seemed to have stirred Southey, as much as it did Shelley.  The older poet wrote to a friend, on January 4th 1812:

'Here is a man at Keswick, who acts upon me as my own ghost would do. He is just what I was in 1794. His name is Shelley...'

Meanwhile, Shelley was also writing to William Godwin.

The journalist and novelist had argued fiercely and consistently for social reform. Amongst his views was that monarchy was corrupt and out-dated; God was being framed as a tyrant; crime was a result of poverty and social injustice; the judicial system was stacked in favor of the ruling elite; and that government naturally counter-acted innovation and reform.

He had also married Mary Wollstonecraft, who was one of the earliest proponents of the rights of women.  She was certainly the first to write about it.  Godwin himself has been called the first British Anarchist.

Invigorated, but frustrated by his discussions with Southey, Shelley lapped up every word written to him by Godwin. 

He became disparaging of 'fireplace revolutionaries' and realized that the only response was action.  Shelley looked west across the Irish Sea and decided that the flashpoint against British social inequity would not occur in England.  It would be the Irish who rose up against the government; and their example would ricochet across the British Isles.

Shelley was determined to be the one to inspire Ireland into a successful revolt (he was hardly the first, nor the last).  He wrote his Address to the Irish People, while still in Cumbria; then he and Harriet were on the move again.

Robert Southey, William Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley

Buy these books to discover the positions which these three writers took at this time. Southey and Godwin influenced Shelley.
Robert Southey: Entire Man of LettersThe Anarchist Writings Of William GodwinAn Address to the Irish People

'O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you...'

Mab is Delirium. She has the potential to deliver waking dreams, as much as those experienced in sleep. That is the folklore, the mythology, the literature and the reality.

Before we move on to rabble rousing in Eire, it's worth pausing at a curious incident in Rheged.

In the 1996 movie of Romeo and Juliet, Queen Mab was a euphemism for a tab of Ecstasy.  This intoxicating aspect of the fairy queen is one which Shelley might have recognized.

It was January 19th 1812, just days before the Shelleys set sail for Ireland.  Percy suffered one of his frequent 'nervous attacks' and applied the usual remedy. This was laudanum, an opium-based substance much abused by Romantic poets and pre-Raphaelite artists; not to mention the general public too.

In the 19th century, laudanum was bought over the counter. It was used as readily and indiscriminately as aspirin is today. No-one would have blinked when Shelley took his dose, even though he was panicking at the time.

There's little doubt that he entered the rabbit hole right around now. A knock came at the door at Greystoke cottage. All alone, Shelley opened it.  An assailant attacked him, meaning to kill him outright.

Shelley struggled and somehow managed to survive.  His shrieks brought a neighbor rushing to investigate. She simply saw Shelley lying senseless on the floor.  No-one else saw his potential assassin; and he had no marks on him.

Once he was recovered, his story changed somewhat. Instead of a terrible attack upon his very soul, it was nothing. He may have been just saying that, because Harriet was terrified. But it's more likely that he realized he'd been hallucinating.

He would continue dosing himself with laudanum for the rest of his life.

Confronting Human Rights Abuses in Eire

Shelley poured out pamphlets and spoke in crowded halls. But the Irish weren't hugely interested in following an Englishman.
Fellow Men,
I am not an Irishman, yet I can feel for you.  I hope there are none among you who will read this address with prejudice or levity, because it is made by an Englishman, indeed, I believe there are not.
An Address to the Irish People by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley was not stupid. He knew from the out-set that an English accent in Ireland was not going to be trusted.

This was February 1812. Just over a decade before, Ireland had been forcibly dragged into the United Kingdom. The United Irishman Rebellion of 1798, and Robert Emmet's uprising in 1803, had been brutality put down. In forty years time, the English would attempt an Irish genocide, after the potato crops failed.

In short, the Irish people were very well aware of the issues of social repression, which Shelley was so passionate about. The realities of Dublin made the poet realize that he too had been a woefully ill-informed 'fireplace revolutionary'.

He immediately wrote two more pamphlets. Proposals for an Association urged all of the disparate Irish rebels to come together under a single banner. They could defeat their British oppressors that way. (This eventually proved true after the Easter Rising a century later.)  

Declaration of Rights was even more far-reaching and radical. It set out thirty-one points for the reform of society.  They included many of the articles which would find fruition in Queen Mab. It laid out the fact that all human beings, regardless of class, nationality or religion, already had rights. It was their duty to fight to ensure that they were able to exercise them.

While Shelley wrote, Harriet took to the streets, handing out the pamphlets and pinning them to walls.

The couple began arranging public meetings all over the city. Shelley addressed packed halls with impassioned speeches.  The rhetoric appears to have been very well received. Everyone cheered, clapped and hissed in all of the right places.

But that did not mean that any Irish man or woman was about to march under the banner of an English teenager.  Especially not when their own political leaders, like Daniel O'Connell, were speaking in the same meetings.

However, they had impressed one young revolutionary.  Dan Healy began helping Harriet distribute the pamphlets.  He was enamored enough of Shelley's ideals, that he later accompanied the couple back to Britain.

It was while they were living in Dublin (at 17 Grafton Street), that the Shelleys became vegetarians.  It was called the Pythagorean system; and it would have been downright radical at the time.

They were only in Ireland for seven weeks. The impetus to come back was in a letter from William Godwin.  He'd read Shelley's Declaration of Rights, and heard about their activities, and he was appalled.

It wasn't the content, it was experience. He could see, better than Shelley, what revolution in Ireland would truly look like. It would be a massacre!  Godwin wrote that the couple were 'preparing a scene of blood' and that this wasn't the answer.

Idealistic Shelley was also a pacifist. He hadn't quite grasped how bloody the fight would be. He trusted and believed Godwin, and immediately told Harriet that they were leaving.

Books about Ireland Since 1800

Buy these books to understand more about Eire, at the time when Shelley was agitating there. 'Early Shelley Pamphlets' includes all those written and distributed in Dublin.
Ireland Since 1800: Conflict and Conf...Robert Emmet: A LifeEarly Shelley Pamphlets

Learn More About Shelley in Ireland in 1812

For a more complete picture of Shelley's agitation in Ireland, Paul O'Brien's book is the best resource.

It follows the poet and Harriet Westbrook Shelley, during their time in Dublin.  Shelley's pamphlets and speeches are all described within their actual context, both culturally and historically.

Nor do their intended audience - the Irish people - become a footnote blob. The reception given to the couple is very well documented, with personalities popping up out of the mire.

Unfortunately, it seems like Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland is dropping out of print. If you want a copy, I'd grab it fast or haunt second hand book shops.

Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland by Paul O'Brien

Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland

'Conailla Medb Míchuru...'

The Irish Warrior Queen Medb was the original. She was not as Shakespeare would have us believe.

Queen Mab did not originate in England. She came from Ireland, though her legend has been interwoven with British Goddesses, like Morgan Le Fey.

Shelley would have been raised to view Mab as Shakespeare depicted Her.  She was 'the fairies' midwife, who comes in a shape no bigger than the agate stone on the fore-finger of an alderman.' This fluttery, gossamer thing owes little to Her Irish roots.

Medb, aka Maeve, Meadhbh or Medbh, emerges from the Irish telling as a strong, proud and fierce woman. She was an old school warrior woman, complete with chariot and spear. She was beautiful enough to turn men against their own people, if they had the chance to sleep with Her.

This Queen turned Goddess (or vice versa) demanded equality and justice. She would destroy everything in her path, if the rebuilding meant a better society. At least that is how Shelley would have interpreted her.

Suddenly the dream sprite, laudanum laced queen of the fairies was transformed into an avenging agent of social reform.  Moreover, the catalyst for her final rampage was Cuchulain, one of the greatest heroes in Irish mythology.

And, just like Shelley, Cuchulain was just a teenager at the time.

Books About the Irish Warrior Queen and Goddess Medb

Discover more about Mab, as Shelley would have learned about her in Dublin. This was a potent figure, whom he could work with.
Queen of the Night: Rediscovering the...Celtic Queen Maeve and Addiction: An ...The Raven Queen

The Cymric Origins of 'Queen Mab'

From April to June 1812, Shelley was back in his beloved Elan Valley. It was here that 'Queen Mab' was written.

In early April 1812, the Shelleys, along with Elizabeth Westbrook and Daniel Healy, crossed the Irish Sea to Holyhead in Wales.

A box containing several copies of the Declaration of Rights was seized at Holyhead by Welsh customs officers, following an instruction from Westminster.  The party was well away before anyone actually read the content.

They spent a couple of weeks wandering around Gwynedd, looking for a house to rent or buy. Nothing was right for them, probably because Shelley already knew where he wanted to go. Slowly but surely, the group were steered towards Powys.

Just a short distance from Thomas Grove's home in the Elan Valley, the couple seized upon Nantgwilt. This was perfect!  This was where Shelley wanted to be!  He just needed the money to buy it.

A letter to his father resulted in short shrift. There would be no funds from that quarter.  Shelley immediately fell into a nervous fever.  He was dying.  It was over. 

And it was now that it happened.  Percy Bysshe Shelley began to write Queen Mab.

However, there is one more piece of the jigsaw to slot into place. That involves Shelley's first, and lost, love Harriet Grove.


*  NB  I have referred to Nantgwilt throughout, as that is what Shelley called it.  To the Welsh, it's Cwn Nantgwyllt.  The house and grounds that they coveted are in the image above.

'Queen Mab' and the Other Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Buy these books to learn what all of the fuss is about, because 'Queen Mab' was about to cause uproar!
Shelley's Poetry and Prose (Norton Cr...Queen MabPercy Bysshe Shelley: Poems

Dedicated to Harriet Grove

'Queen Mab' is prefaced with a dedication to Ms Grove. This was a first love laid bare and raw with betrayal and separation.

Too many commentaries on Queen Mab state that it was dedicated to his new bride, Harriet Westbrook.  It was not.

In 1810, a year before his marriage to Ms Westbrook, the seventeen-year-old Shelley had been betrothed to another Harriet. She was the recipient of many of his earliest poems, including Queen Mab. She was the first person that he sent it to.

The dedication there reads: To Harriet *****.  Count the stars. Does that say Harriet Westbrook, Harriet Shelley or Harriet Grove? I count five. It's the latter.  Even the ensuing poem only talks of 'Harriet'.  It doesn't state which one.

Then press into thy breast this pledge of love;
And know, though time may change and years may roll,
      Each floweret gathered in my heart
      It consecrates to thine.

There's no doubt that the teenage Shelley had been madly in love with his cousin, Harriet Grove. If their letters and his poems hadn't already told that story, then the fact that he walked from Sussex to Rhayader might give the hint.

He went to stay at Cwn Elan, the home of his cousin, Thomas Grove - Harriet's brother. His letters to Thomas Hogg from there, as well as the poetry definitely dedicated to Harriet Grove, tell of his heartbreak. Until late August 1811, Shelley did nothing but express his betrayal of his lost love.

Moreover, Cwn Elan was only a mile and a half away from Nantgwilt, the house that he was so desperate to buy with his wife.

You have to pause to feel sorry for Harriet Westbrook at this point. Shelley had originally entered the Elan Valley to get closer to Harriet Grove. He might have left it to marry Harriet Westbrook, but he brought her back there.

Then, entrenched amidst the same landscape in which he'd dreamed of his earlier love, he wrote Queen Mab and dedicated it to her instead.

So why didn't he marry Harriet Grove instead?  She had become frightened by his radical ideas and atheism, so showed his letters to her father. He forbade Shelley access to his daughter.

It is intriguing to read Queen Mab in the context of a call to arms for Harriet Grove. Was he telling her to wake up too?  And was she Mab or Ianthe?  Probably the latter.  Henry waited forever for a kiss and never got one.

Timeline Towards the Writing and Publication of 'Queen Mab'

  • March 25th 1811:  Shelley and Hogg are expelled from Oxford University for writing The Necessity of Atheism.
  • March 26th 1811:  Shelley and Hogg immediately go to visit Harriet Grove's parents, Charlotte and Thomas Grove. It's all very polite, but they get the hint that they aren't welcome. The two friends rent a room in Piccadilly, in London, instead.
  • Late March - April 1811:  The pair go to Clapham, where Shelley's sisters are at school with their friend, Harriet Westbrook.  The girls ensure that the teenagers are given food and some money.
  • April 1811:  Sir Timothy Shelley meets the boys for dinner, at the Miller's Hotel, in London.  Percy is told that he is not welcome back home, at Field Place, in Horsham, Sussex, unless he breaks his friendship with Hogg. Shelley refuses.  Hogg goes home to York, after lending his friend some money.  Shelley walks to Cwm Elan, the home of his cousin Thomas Grove, in the Elan Valley, Rhayader, Powys.
  • Late July 1811:  Harriet Westbrook wrote to Shelley to say that she didn't want to go back to school. She begged him to come and get her.
  • August 1st 1811:  Harriet Westbrook turned sixteen years old.
  • August 4th 1811:  Percy Bysshe Shelley turned nineteen years old.
  • August 28th 1811:  Harriet and Percy married in Edinburgh, Scotland.
  • September 1811:  The couple travel to York to stay with Thomas Hogg.  Shelley left Harriet there, while he briefly returned to Sussex.  (His father still hadn't forgiven him.) Shelley came back to discover that Harriet's sister, Elizabeth Westbrook had joined them. Worst still, Harriet complained that Hogg had made a pass at her. They leave.
  • January 19th 1812:  Suffering a panic attack, Shelley took laudanum. He reported that he was physically attacked by an assailant at his front door.
  • January 26th 1812: Shelley wrote to his friend Elizabeth Hitchener, telling her that the attack was nothing; and mentioning that Southey is trying to dissuade him from going to Ireland. He appears relieved that (his wife) Harriet is not pregnant.
  • January 29th 1812:  Both Percy and Harriet wrote to Elizabeth Hitchener again. They were now staying at the home of the Calverts, in Keswick, Cumbria.  Percy is worried that people are gossiping about him, besmirching his reputation in regard to his marriage. Meanwhile, Harriet was in fierce form, writing, 'I am Irish: I claim kinship with them. I have done with the English: I have witnessed too much of John Bull, and I am ashamed of him.'  (Incidentally, she is English.)
  • February 2nd 1812:  The Shelleys and Elizabeth Westbrook left for Ireland, via the Isle of Man.
  • February 13th 1812:  They arrived in Dublin.
  • February 28th 1812: Shelley spoke at Fishamble Street Theatre, in Dublin.  There was much applause and cheering, whenever he criticized the English.
  • March 1st 1812: The Shelleys became vegetarians.
  • April 1812:  The party sail to Wales and start looking for a house.  They spend two weeks in Gwynedd, before going to the Elan Valley.
  • April 24th 1812:  Shelley wrote to his father, from Nantgwilt, in Wales, asking for money to buy the house and its attendant farm. (His father said no.)  Harriet was ill with a fever.
  • June 3rd 1812: Shelley reported to Godwin that he had just finished reading La Systeme de la Nature by Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud.  Many of the ideas about atheism and education were to turn up in Queen Mab too.
  • June 11th 1812:  Shelley told Godwin that they were being forced to leave Nantgwilt.
  • July 1812:  The couple left Wales for Devon, in England, along with Daniel Healy.  Presumably Elizabeth Westbrook was also still with them.  They took a house in Linton, near to Lynmouth.  Their friend Elizabeth Hitchener joined them there.  She is allowed to read the draft of Queen Mab.
  • August 1812:  The Shelleys are observed making little waxen covered boats of their Declaration of Rights, then setting them to sail in the Bristol Channel.  They also fastened some inside bottles; and placed others into miniature hot air balloons. (I can only guess that they were trying to get them across the Irish Sea...)
  • August 1st 1812:  Harriet Westbrook turned seventeen years old.
  • August 4th 1812:  Percy Bysshe Shelley turned twenty years old.
  • August 17th 1812:  Shelley wrote to Sir James Lawrence to say that marriage is evil. He'd only married Harriet to save her reputation in society.
  • August 18th 1812:  Shelley sent a first draft of Queen Mab to Barnstaple publisher Thomas Hookham.  His accompanying letter also indicates that the parcel included some of his Irish pamphlets, and a radical address from America. He wants them all copied and sent to Dublin. His postscript states that he is also translating La Systeme de la Nature into English and that will follow.
  • August 20th 1812:  Daniel Healy is arrested for posting seditious papers around Lynmouth, in Devon. These were all copies of Shelley's Declaration of Rights.  Healy is given a six month prison sentence in Barnstaple Gaol.
  • August 22nd 1812: The Town Clerk of Barnstaple received a letter from Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary.  It is an order to watch the Shelleys with a view to arresting them for sedition.
  • End of August 1812Queen Mab safely at the printers, the group flee Devon, leaving Healy in prison.
  • September 1812: The party take a house in Tan-y-Rallt, in near Caernafon, in Gwynedd, North Wales.
  • October 1812:  Harriet became pregnant with their first child.  Elizabeth Ianthe Shelley was born in June 1813.  (She, and her brother Charles (born 1814), were later taken from Shelley. The ideas he espoused in Queen Mab led to a jury ruling that he was an unfit parent.)
  • February 26th 1813:  The Devil attacked Shelley at home.  The Satanic manifestation fired three pistol shots at him, in an apparent assassination attempt, then fled. Shelley was terrified, but unhurt. Everyone else assumes that this is yet another laudanum hallucination. (It took nearly a century for a Welshman to confess that his grandfather, Robin Pant Evan, was the culprit. The man had been annoyed by the arrogant English poet, so had gone with two friends to scare him. It worked.)
  • February 27th 1813:  The Shelleys, and Elizabeth Westbrook, leave Tan-y-Rallt.
  • May 1813Queen Mab is finally published after some delay at the printers. It has a run of 250 copies, all privately distributed by Shelley and not meant for public consumption. His first copy is sent to Harriet Grove.

Shelley Books and Memorabilia on eBay

Updated: 02/03/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 08/23/2012

I love him! A true wild child of the poetical world. But I'm also not rose-tinted about him. How he treated Harriet Westbrook was appalling.

Glad you liked this though. I am planning a follow up, with how Queen Mab was received.

zteve on 08/23/2012

Jo, a very informative and interesting page very well put together. Shelly is one of my favorite poets and historical characters. I always found him and those around him intriguing. Outstanding page!

JoHarrington on 08/22/2012

If you want to PM me your ancestry, I can see if I can help. There's a slight problem with a Dublin ancestry though, in that many records were destroyed during the war. :( Hopefully your family's survived intact.

And always good to hail a fellow Celt!

Ragtimelil on 08/22/2012

Wow, I've got to read this again. We just found out that my gg grandfather was from Dublin. Now I've got to learn all the Irish stuff. I always wondered who Queen Mab was.

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