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Percy Bysshe Shelley

Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1813

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Summary and Study Guide


“Queen Mab” is an epic, utopian poem by the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley is most well-known for his epic masterpiece, “Prometheus Unbound,” and his poems “Ozymandias,” “Ode to the West Wind,” and “The Mask of Anarchy.” Written when Shelley was only 18 years old, “Queen Mab” was initially published anonymously in 1813 due to its radical political content. However, after the poem was illegally distributed and gained popularity, Shelley published it formally in 1816 after making edits to soften the poem’s radical message. Shelley dedicated this poem to Harriet Westbrook Shelley, his first wife. Their daughter Ianthe shares the same name as the poem’s heroine.

The poem includes nine cantos Shelley called books, which chronicle the spiritual journey of Ianthe. After Ianthe falls asleep, she is visited by the powerful folkloric fairy Queen Mab, who casts a spell to allow Ianthe’s soul to separate from her body. As they journey through the cosmos, Queen Mab shows Ianthe’s spirit a vision of the past, present, and future of humankind. Through Queen Mab’s commentary on the past and present, Shelley disparages civilization, criticizing wealth and social inequality, industrialization, religion, and traditional morality. A phantom, Ahasuerus, presents an especially pointed critique of Christianity. After studying the past errors of humanity, Queen Mab shows the spirit a hopeful view of the future, proclaiming that an earthly utopia will be realized when humans understand what true virtue is and learn how to live harmoniously with the natural world. Ianthe’s soul returns to her body, and she awakens at the poem’s end.

Citation note: The first number in each in-text citation refers to the canto/book from which the quote is taken. The numbers after the period indicate the line number. For example, (Line 3.45) refers to line 45 in book 3.

Poet Biography

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792 in West Sussex, England, to a wealthy family. Shelley was precocious and rambunctious, impressive for his memory and gift for languages. He went to school at Eton, where he was viciously bullied, and then enrolled at Oxford, though he was expelled after writing a radical political tract titled “The Necessity of Atheism."

In 1811, Shelley married 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook, which caused personal chaos for Shelley and ended in tragedy. The fathers of both Shelley and Harriet cut off the couple; Shelley’s father, a Member of Parliament, believed Shelley had married beneath him. During this time, Shelley became engaged in political protests and revolutionary action in support of the cause of Irish independence and other political movements. He and Westbrook struggled financially and moved frequently. Shelley and Westbrook split up in 1814, after their daughter Ianthe was born.

Due to difficulties with his father, Shelley sought mentorship and formed a kinship with William Godwin, a famous English philosopher. His close relationship with Godwin led him to meet Godwin’s 16-year-old daughter Mary, who was also the daughter of famed feminist revolutionary Mary Wollstonecraft. The two started a relationship while Shelley was still married to Harriet; after Harriet’s tragic death by drowning in 1816, Shelley and Mary Godwin married.

Harriet’s death prompted a period of deep marital, financial, and familial stress; the Shelleys were in a complex open marriage with Mary’s sister Claire and Shelley’s fellow Oxford radical Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Mary suffered a stillbirth, and gave birth to the couple’s first child. At the same time, this time was also artistically fruitful. Percy Shelley developed friendships with other noted Romantic poets, including Lord Byron and John Keats, while Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein, which was inspired by a dream she had during a trip to Geneva, Switzerland, with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. The Shelleys eventually left England and moved to Italy. In Italy, Percy Shelley wrote his greatest works of lyric poetry. He died in 1822 at the age of 29 in a boating accident in Italy.

Poem Text

Shelley, Percey Bysshe. “Queen Mab” 1813. The University of Pennsylvania.