Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Allen R. Dunn

Committee Members

Nancy Henry, Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud, Stephen Blackwell


This dissertation explores Percy Shelley’s ethical commitments in several of his major works. Its primary claim is that Shelley’s poetry is involved in the regulation and education of desire. As a fundamentally antinomian poet, Shelley grapples time and again with how moral progress will be guided absent the regulatory influences of law and religion. My dissertation offers an answer to this central impasse affecting scholarship on the ethical world Shelley imagines and attempts to realize through poetry. It argues for a dialectical movement observable in Shelley’s work of the programmatic breakdown, rather than fulfillment, of hope. This study reconsiders the process of how Shelley’s notion of the liberated self, best represented in Prometheus Unbound, overcomes what he calls in “Mont Blanc,” “Large codes of fraud and woe.” I claim that Shelley’s poetry tends toward the enlargement of human agency by addressing the constraints of volition and passion. Consumed with self-interest and human passion, what Shelley names in Laon and Cythna the “dark idolatry of self” runs athwart the aesthetic and political telos of his poetry—the collectivization and inclusiveness of the self.

Yet I argue that such a self-conversion from exclusionary self-interest to inclusive self-liberation becomes possible only through failure and limitation, humility and forgiveness. My aim is to show how Shelley speaks in his poetry from the end of history in order to translate the political and social abstractions of utopian discourse into a “vital alchemy” of living poetry. The immanent moment when selfishness converts to altruism marks some of the most powerful events in Shelley’s work as well as some of the most bleak. In this study I reveal the dialectical process behind them. The retreat to the self, a frequent narrative trope of the Romantic period, becomes in Shelley a re-treatment of the self’s relation to desire and society.

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