Finding Meaning Through Maenads in Shelley’s Poetry
As the Shelley family belonged to Britain’s landed aristocracy, Percy Bysshe Shelley was able to receive a prestigious classical education from Eton and Oxford. Though Shelley was expelled from Oxford after less than a year of study,1 his poetry makes it clear that he certainly gained a deep understanding of and appreciation for classical poetry and drama. A piece like Prometheus Unbound, for instance, demonstrates Shelley’s ability to recreate and modify Greek myth and Greek drama, while his Adonais takes elements of classical mythology and adapts them to a pastoral elegy. One particular nod to ancient Greece that I have noticed in several of Shelley’s works is his apparent fascination with maenads, the frenzied worshippers of the god Dionysus. Specifically, allusions to maenads can be found in Prometheus Unbound, “Ode to Liberty,” “Ode to the West Wind,” and Adonais, while more subtle descriptions of this Bacchic worship are seen in “The Triumph of Life.” The quintessential classical text on Dionysus and his cult of maenads is Euripides’ play The Bacchae,2 which Shelley was undoubtedly familiar with. By examining both the Euripides text and the use of Bacchic figures and imagery in the poetry of Shelley, I wish to prove that for Shelley, Greek maenads represent a passionate, political, and artistic power that is representative of both his beloved ancient Greece and of revolutionary France, as well as of himself as a poet.
The Bacchae tells the story of how the god Dionysus enacts his revenge on the people of Thebes who refuse to acknowledge his divinity. Briefly, the myth of Dionysus states that Zeus, disguised as a mortal, impregnates Semele, a mortal woman and daughter of King Cadmus, who is then tricked by the goddess Hera into asking Zeus to show her his true form. In doing so, Zeus instantly kills Semele, but rescues the unborn baby Dionysus and sews him into his thigh, from which is he eventually born. According to the classical scholar Robert Meagher, Dionysus is the god “of the rippling, pulsing, erupting, sluicing forces of life: blood, water, sap, semen, milk and wine” (60). Because of this reputation of his, many Greeks were skeptical of him and feared the effect he had on women. Semele’s sisters (namely Agave) and nephew, Pentheus, are the most skeptical of Dionysus’ origin story’s validity, and are thus the god’s chief targets in The Bacchae. Euripides depicts Dionysus as having a strong and unusual power over women, causing them to abandon their homes and families, “let their hair flow loose onto their shoulders,” crown “themselves with wreaths of ivy/and oak and flowering evergreen creepers,” and savagely tear to pieces “grazing calves,” “mature cows,” and “bulls” alike, in addition to other animals for sacrifice (Euripides 695, 702–3, 736, 739, 743). At the end of the play, the maenads even gruesomely kill Pentheus:
It was his own mother who first, as sacred priestess, began the slaughter
and falls upon [Pentheus]. He threw the headband from his hair
hoping that the wretched Agave, recognizing her son, might not kill him.
…But Agave, foaming at the mouth and rolling her protruding eyeballs,
not thinking what she ought to think,
was held fast by the Bacchic god nor was Pentheus persuading her.
…she tore off his shoulder, not by her own strength —
no, the god gave a special ease to her hands.
…All the women, with blood-spattered hands,
were playing ball with Pentheus’ flesh. (Euripides 1114–6, 1122–4, 1127–8, 1135–6)
To summarize, the maenads that we see in The Bacchae are all female and are worshippers of a controversial deity, though largely against their will. While under the spell of Bacchic frenzy, they are passionate, violent, and charged with a sort of sexual energy that gives Dionysus a reputation of being a god of liberation. Overall, they seem to be the patriarchy’s worst nightmare.
After taking a close look at a classical depiction of maenadic frenzy, one can go on to see how this imagery is employed by Shelley in his poetry. Prometheus Unbound, being a rather long work situated in Greek mythology, not surprisingly has the most mentions of maenads of all of Shelley’s poems. At the beginning of Act II, Scene iii, Panthea describes “the realm/Of Demogorgon” as a place that produces an “oracular vapour…/Which lonely men drink wandering in their youth/And call truth, virtue, love, genius or joy” (Shelley, Prometheus Unbound 2.3.1–2, 4–6). One could say that Shelley himself falls into this group of men, seeking knowledge, justice, happiness, and the like. Panthea then calls this vapor the “maddening wine of life” that has the power to turn these young philosophers into intoxicated “Maenads who cry loud, Evoe! Evoe!/The voice which is contagion to the world” (Shelley, Prometheus Unbound 2.3.7, 9–10). The word “contagion” sticks out here. Is Shelley suggesting that the so-described maenadic frenzy of men who search for truth and genius pollutes the rest of the world? Or, conversely, does he mean that the vigor that intoxicates them in turn intoxicates those around them with the desire to learn and understand? I feel that the latter explanation seems more likely, but it is hard to say from these lines alone whether the image of impassioned maenads is positive or negative in Prometheus Unbound and for Shelley in general.
The maenad motif seems to take a turn to the negative in Act III Scene iii. The Earth commands the Spirit that appears to “guide this company [Prometheus and Asia] beyond the peak/Of Bacchic Nysa, Maenad-haunted mountain” (Shelley, Prometheus Unbound 3.3.153–4). Not only is this a mountain that The Earth wants Prometheus and Asia to surpass, but it is “haunted” by maenads, suggesting that maenads are beings to be feared. In the final act, however, The Moon shines a more flattering light on Bacchic worship, ascribing the role of a maenad to herself in her devotion to The Earth: “Maniac-like around thee move,/…/Like a Maenad round the cup/Which Agave lifted up” (Shelley, Prometheus Unbound 4.470, 473–4). Looking back to The Bacchae, we know that Agave is not exactly a positive figure. The emphasis here, though, seems more to be on the sheer outright devotion maenads have for Dionysus, which the Moon uses to stress just how attached she is to the Earth. In other words, Shelley appears to praise the passion and loyalty of maenads here.
In his “Ode to Liberty,” Shelley not only specifically features a maenad figure but also ties in the theme of Bacchic worship with descriptions of ancient Greece and Rome as well as revolutionary France. It is this bridge between the classical world and the Enlightenment period that I feel is one of the key functions of Dionysian cult imagery for Shelley. In the fourth and fifth stanzas of “Ode To Liberty,” Shelley sets a scene of a somewhat romanticized ancient Greece. He begins by remarking that first Greece’s natural features “basked glorious in the open smiles/Of favouring heaven” (Shelley, “Liberty” 48–9). After a period of beautiful simplicity, “Athens arose: a city such as vision/Builds from the purple crags and silver towers/Of battlemented cloud” (Shelley, “Liberty” 61–3). Shelley also attributes the Acropolis to being Liberty’s “earliest throne” (“Liberty” 75). Overall, the ancient Greece depicted here seems to be the embodiment of beauty and freedom, at least in the eyes of Shelley.
As a contrast to this near-perfect Greece, Shelley introduces Rome in Stanza VII. Rome, from Liberty’s “deep bosom fairest,/Like a wolf-cub from a Cadmaean Maenad,/…drew the milk of greatness” (Shelley, “Liberty” 91–3). When one is familiar with The Bacchae, the first name that comes to mind upon hearing “Cadmaean Maenad” is Agave, the daughter of Cadmus and famous perpetrator of filicide. In that sense, if Liberty is embodying Agave here, then Rome, the “wolf-cub,” would be Pentheus, and thus Liberty would bring an end to Rome. Shelley could be referring to the way the people of Rome expelled the Tarquin kings and brought about the Roman Republic; he perhaps might also be alluding to the eventual fall of the Roman Empire. Additionally, he could be taking a stab at the eventual role of Rome as the seat of the Catholic Church, an institution Shelley undoubtedly felt was harmful to human society as a whole.3 Regardless, Liberty, like a fierce maenad, will not allow for her people to be subjugated in the end.
Nancy Goslee focuses on these lines in her article “Pursuing Revision in Shelley’s ‘Ode to Liberty.’” According to Goslee, the allegory of Liberty takes on a potentially dangerous form as a maenad in this simile, but is significantly transformed into a vestal virgin in line 99. Goslee describes the maenad Liberty as having “alien, militant, and antipatriarchal power,” while the vestal virgin Liberty is a “pure, evasive, tutelary deity” (173). She argues that “this inconsistency of character development sharply reminds us that Liberty is not a character but a rhetorical figure” in this poem (Goslee 172). Her description of the maenad as being both militant and antipatriarchal is not surprising, but her calling the maenad “alien” is certainly intriguing. Indeed, the figure of the maenad is not Roman, and even the Greek maenads Euripides wrote of are believed to have originally come from Persia, like Dionysus. This tendency to turn up in foreign texts and cause commotion is characteristic of maenads, and Shelley, like Euripides before him, seems to have fallen under their spell. Maenads are both frightening and alluring, and so they make wonderfully complicated figures in poetry, which is certainly fitting for Shelley’s goal of obscuring the abstract concept of Liberty.
In his article “‘Beasts of the Woods and Wildernesses’ in the Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley,” Lloyd Jeffrey explores the representations of animals in Shelley’s works, including this wolf cub that we see in “Ode to Liberty.” According to Jeffrey, Shelley seems to borrow his “poetic fauna” from classical mythology, but only ever outwardly acknowledges this in “Ode to Liberty,” where he attributes his maenad reference to Euripides’ The Bacchae (66). Perhaps this speaks to the importance of Euripides’ play for Shelley, and how he wants his readers to know that there is indeed a firm connection between Liberty as a “Cadmaean Maenad” and the Cadmean maenads seen in The Bacchae (“Liberty” 92). Jeffrey also states that out of all the wolves featured in Shelley’s poetry, only Liberty’s wolf cub “embodies a sympathetic concept” (74). Indeed, the wolf cub is hardly vicious or “maligned”; the implication here then could be that the maenad form of Liberty is what corrupts Rome, turning it into a more stereotypical wolf (Jeffrey 74). I am not convinced that Liberty is the true culprit, though. Instead, it seems that Shelley uses the image of a wolf cub to show something that seems innocent and sympathetic but that is doomed to become evil by its own nature. In other words, Rome was always flawed. Shelley stands by the power of Liberty, even in her potentially dangerous maenad form.
Later in the poem, in the twelfth stanza, Shelley makes another Dionysian reference in his discussion of France: “How like Bacchanals of blood/Round France, the ghastly vintage, stood/Destruction’s sceptered slaves, and Folly’s mitred brood!” (“Liberty” 171–3). A bacchanal, traditionally, is a sort of drunken celebration of Dionysus, or rather the dance of the maenads. In these lines Shelley is aligning the French Jacobin revolutionaries with Dionysus’ maenads in their respective bloody revelries. Shelley is also rather critical of the French nobility and clergy here, referring to them as the slaves of Destruction and Folly. He goes on to name Napoleon as the “Anarch of [Liberty’s] own bewildered powers,” suggesting that the emperor twisted Liberty into something dangerous and “darken[ed] the sacred bowers/Of serene heaven” (Shelley, “Liberty” 175, 177–8). It seems then that the true champions of Liberty in France for Shelley are the Jacobins, and since the Jacobins appear in a maenadic form here, maenads seem to have a positive, powerful, liberating meaning for Shelley.
In “Pursuing Revision in Shelley’s ‘Ode to Liberty,’” Goslee also tackles this stanza. Contrary to some of his other poems, in “Ode to Liberty” Shelley “delays talking directly about this anarchic outburst of Liberty” that is the French Revolution, according to Goslee (177). The topic does not arise until more than halfway through the poem, and is contained to one stanza. Goslee’s analysis of lines 171–5 suggests that Shelley might have mixed feelings in regard to Liberty’s role in revolutionary France: “Shelley’s attack on ‘sceptred slaves’ and ‘Mitred brood’ suggests that he makes the forces of earlier tyranny stand…but his image of Napoleon as sharing Liberty’s powers links tyranny and a dark, distorted form of liberty again together, in anarchy” (177). While it is true that Shelley joins the power of Liberty with the reign of Napoleon in this depiction, which implies a sort of fear of different manifestations of Liberty, Goslee ignores the joy, albeit a sort of macabre joy, that is evoked in the words “Bacchanals of blood” (Shelley, “Liberty” 171). She acknowledges the Dionysian roots of this illustration, but then focuses more on the stanza’s other figures, failing to see the importance of these metaphorical maenad Jacobins.
Goslee even ties Prometheus Unbound and “Ode to Liberty” together in her discussion of the Liberty allegory. She states that “Shelley’s representation of Liberty strives to avoid representation or to make its process opaque enough for us to recognize the gap between force and figure” (Goslee 174). We already know this to be the case in “Ode to Liberty,” but Goslee argues that the obscure figure of Liberty appears in Prometheus Unbound as a “volcanic and imageless” energy (174). Hearing these words calls to mind the first passage from Prometheus Unbound that I discussed, in which Demogorgon’s realm is said to be “like a Volcano’s meteor-breathing chasm” that dispenses the vapor of knowledge and happiness unto living men (Shelley, Prometheus Unbound 2.3.3). It seems then that Goslee could be implying that this is actually Liberty spreading this desire to learn and causing men to act “like maenads who cry loud, Evoe! Evoe!” (Shelley, Prometheus Unbound 2.3.9). That would then support my thought that this whole image is a positive sort of “contagion” for Shelley (Prometheus Unbound 2.3.10). Truth, genius, and love set men free, and in their freedom, they find the passion of Dionysus’ maenads.
Though it is a rather short poem, Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” contains a key image of a maenad, showing a more artistic and nature-oriented side to the figures. In the poem’s second stanza, Shelley writes,
Loose clouds like Earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
…there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad. (“West Wind” 16, 18–21).
The maenad image here serves as part of a simile, where the wisps of clouds are compared to the “bright hair” of a “fierce Maenad” (Shelley, “West Wind” 20, 21). Shelley compares these clouds to a number of things, in fact, such as “decaying leaves” and “angels of rain and lightning” (“West Wind” 16, 18). The image of the dying leaves ties the clouds in with the natural world, and that of the angels connects them to a more artistic and supernatural realm; what then is meant by the maenad’s hair? I would argue that the maenad seen in “Ode to the West Wind” embodies both of these ideas, meaning that of nature and that of something beyond nature.
The poem talks a great deal about death in nature, namely the dying of leaves in autumn. Maenads, as we know from The Bacchae, frequently bring about death in nature with their sacrificing of animals in the woods. That being said, it is not surprising at all to see a maenad in “Ode to the West Wind.” Though the clouds described in stanza II are compared to autumn’s “decaying leaves,” they are also partially responsible for the death of the leaves, what with their bringing about of storms and colder weather (Shelley, “West Wind” 16). Thus, Shelley likens these clouds to a maenad’s hair, as they are a part of the changing weather patterns that bring harm to summer’s foliage. Though this sounds negative, one must remember that “Ode to the West Wind” is about the cyclical nature of the natural world, and that “Spring” is not too “far behind” the wrath of winter (Shelley, “West Wind” 70). In other words, the changing and dying of the leaves is necessary, so the maenad-like clouds can be seen as rather beneficial figures in the grand scheme of this process. The clouds of stanza II also seem almost supernatural in a way, particularly in how they are described as “angels of rain and lightning” (Shelley, “West Wind” 18). The clouds, in their bringing about of change in nature, act like divine deputies, ensuring that everything stays in order. Interestingly, though, such a description seems almost antithetical to that of a maenad. Perhaps then Shelley again wishes to show a more positive and aesthetic side of maenads, arguing that like the clouds, they are important figures in nature and in art.
In the version of “Ode to the West Wind” that I have been working with, which can be found in Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat’s anthology Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, there is a footnote on this maenad reference that I feel is worthy of examination. Footnote 9 on pg. 299 quotes a prose passage of Shelley’s in which the poet describes a sculpture of four maenads that he once saw in Florence. This relief sculpture seems to likely have inspired the maenad image in “Ode to the West Wind,” as Shelley says, “Their hair loose and floating seems caught in the tempest of their own tumultuous motion, their heads are thrown back…looking up to Heaven, while they totter and stumble even in the energy of their tempestuous dance” (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 299). Shelley acknowledges the untamed “drunkenness” of the maenads, but certainly seems to admire their vigor (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose 299). He romanticizes their violent and wild behavior, which is perhaps easy to do when gazing upon a piece of art.
In his article “Shelley and the Religion of Joy,” Timothy Webb also examines this brief section of Shelley’s prose. Webb discusses Shelley’s particular admiration of classical Greek art and artists, asserting that for Shelley, the “Greeks are compelling artists because they can alchemize everything through the magic of their art, transform the poisonous waters to gold and turn horror into beauty” (363). In other words, it is not that Shelley is unaware of or ignoring the rather disturbing nature of Bacchic mania, but that his appreciation for Greek art overpowers that, and is even strengthened by that fact, since Greek artists possessed the ability to craft something so beautiful from something so horrible. According to Webb, Shelley “was aware that Greek religion could be brutal and sanguinary, that it included Maenads as well as water nymphs,” but such knowledge “did not prevent him from believing that what Greece had to offer to succeeding generations was a series of beautiful idealisms, an enduring collection of images which perpetuate the divinity in man” (363–4). Along with the described statue, Euripides’ The Bacchae surely serves as another example of an achievement that has elevated the controversial worship of Dionysus to an artform, which could very well be Shelley’s goal in all his inclusions of maenads in his poetry.
Like Prometheus Unbound, Shelley’s Adonais is built on many images and elements from classical Greek mythology. The reference to maenads and Bacchic revelry in Adonais is particularly intriguing, as Shelley actually puts himself, or at least a fictionalized version of himself, into the role of a sort of maenad. First, Shelley describes “one frail Form” that is meant to represent himself, and then provides a peculiar illustration of this Form (Adonais 271). In stanza 33, Shelley places the Form within the ranks of the followers of Dionysus:
His head was bound with pansies overblown,
And faded violets, white, and pied, and blue;
And a light spear topped with a cypress cone,
Round whose rude shaft dark ivy tresses grew
Yet dripping with the forest’s noonday dew,
Vibrated, as the ever-beating heart
Shook the weak hand that grasped it; of that crew
He came the last, neglected and apart;
A herd-abandoned deer struck by the hunter’s dart. (Adonais 289–97)
In this stanza, the Shelley figure becomes a maenad of sorts, which is evocative of Pentheus’ cross-dressing in The Bacchae.4 He has flowers in his hair and holds a thyrsus, the “light spear topped with a cypress cone” and covered with “ivy tresses” and honey wielded by Dionysus and his followers (Shelley, Adonais 291, 292). Shelley emphasizes the phallic symbolism of the thyrsus with words like “rude shaft” and “vibrated,” thus heightening the sexual implications of making the Form participate in Bacchic worship (Adonais 292, 294). Thus, as a maenad, the Shelley figure is liberated, but he remains trapped among the other “shepherds,” or poets (Shelley, Adonais 263). At the end of stanza 33, he likens himself to Actaeon,5 stating that he is “neglected and apart” from the other poets, and is “a herd-abandoned deer struck by the hunter’s dart” (Shelley, Adonais 296–7). The Form certainly feels separated from those around him, and even feels attacked by them. In this sense, maenadic frenzy seems like a thing misunderstood: a practice that the Shelley figure endorses and partakes in, but that other poets care not for.
Michael Scrivener also analyzes this interesting stanza in his article “Adonais: Defending the Imagination.” According to Scrivener, “the other poets keep their distance” from the poem’s Shelley figure “because he indeed represents a dangerous possibility” in his symbolic Bacchic worship (758). He then elaborates on this key metaphor in Adonais, saying,
If a poet is dressed like a Maenad, then the implication seems clear enough: the poet calls into existence his own destruction; the Form creates beauty for others, but for himself creates only pain; inspiration and creativity lead to death because remembering Paradise while still in the historical world is to create hell. (Scrivener 758).
Once again, we see a connection between the creation of art and Bacchic worship, similar to what Timothy Webb describes in “Shelley and the Religion of Joy.” Shelley sees himself as a poet with a responsibility: to “[create] beauty for others,” while causing himself “only pain” (Scrivener 758). Scrivener’s words are reminiscent of Satan’s in Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place and in itself/Can make a Heaven of hell, a hell of Heaven” (Milton 254–5). According to this argument, Shelley sees the mind of a poet, or at least certain poets like himself and Keats, as being essentially different than the average mind, as it is both blessed and cursed. The great poet’s mind has seen “Paradise” and can write of it, but can only feel “death” and “hell” while focusing on reality, which is similar to the predicament of Satan (Scrivener 758). However, it is not in the role of Satan or another fallen angel that Shelley places himself, but rather in that of a maenad. Again, as we have seen in multiple works of Shelley’s now, there is something about maenads that speaks to him and captures his imagination. For Shelley, the figures of maenads serve multiple purposes; this time, in Adonais, Shelley even becomes a maenad, and uses their rather horrific reputation to comment on the life and struggles of great poets. Maenads lose themselves in their worship of Dionysus, just as true poets lose themselves in their imaginations and creative processes.
Additionally, Michael Scrivener discusses the way the Form takes on the role of Actaeon, stating that when “the Form gazes on nature’s pure beauty, he glimpses paradise, which, instead of becoming his residence, becomes his haunting demon. He experiences Paradise as something lost and inaccessible” (758). When Actaeon sees the naked Artemis, he is sentenced to a cruel death; when the Shelley figure discovers the “Paradise” that is poetic creativity, he is sentenced to a cruel life (Scrivener 758). Again, the Form seems to be in a situation similar to that of Satan in Paradise Lost, but Shelley continues to follow through with his Greek mythological theme in Adonais. As Timothy Webb says, Shelley felt that the “best self of [Greek] civilization” could be found “in works of art and literature,” so it makes sense that he tries to evoke Greek art in his own poetry (364). As embodiments of both Actaeon and a maenad, the Form experiences great beauty, great passion, and great pain, and Shelley effectively uses classical Greek figures to express the struggles he faces as a poet. Ultimately, by placing a fictionalized version of himself in the role of a maenad in Adonais, Shelley solidifies the fact that for him, maenads are almost like muses, playing various roles in his poetry and allowing him to explain many things through metaphor, even his own feelings on being a poet.
Unlike the pieces I have previously discussed, “The Triumph of Life,” Shelley’s final, unfinished work, does not use the word “maenad” specifically. It does, however, describe a maniac dance that is clearly evocative of Bacchic worship, showing a somewhat different view on maenadic frenzy than we see in Shelley’s other works. Describing this Bacchic scene, the poetic speaker says,
The crowd gave way, and I arose aghast,
Or seemed to rise, so mighty was the trance,
And saw like clouds upon the thunder blast
The million with fierce song and maniac dance
Raging around. (Shelley, “Triumph” 107–11)
An image of a multitude swept up in a “maniac dance” and “raging around” certainly resembles a bacchanal (Shelley, “Triumph” 110–11). If that is Shelley’s intention here, it is also worth noting that these dancing maenads are compared to “clouds upon the thunder blast,” since clouds and maenads also make up two parts of the simile I previously analyzed in “Ode to the West Wind” (Shelley, “Triumph” 109). Unlike in that poem, though, these clouds and maenads seem more ominous and frightening. The maenad-like clouds of “Ode to the West Wind” bring about necessary changes in nature, but the cloud-like maenads of “The Triumph of Life” take part in something fearsome and potentially harmful. Shelley even continues this comparison in “The Triumph of Life,” writing that the members of the maenadic mob dance themselves into “bright destruction…Till like two clouds into one vale impelled/That shake the mountains when their lightnings mingle/And die in rain” they fall (“Triumph” 154–7). Again, this cloud imagery is somewhat negative, making nature sound violent, and in turn the “maniac dance” sounds rather violent as well (Shelley, “Triumph” 110). Like the clouds, the dancing maenads eventually crash into one another, and their bacchanal comes to an end with a rainlike fall. Overall, the simile of the maenads and the clouds in “The Triumph of Life” is a more adverse take on the ferocity of Bacchic worship and of nature as well than is typically seen in Shelley’s poetry.
The poetic speaker continues to describe the maenadic mob, saying, “swift, fierce and obscene/The wild dance maddens in the van” (Shelley, “Triumph” 137–8). He calls their music “savage” and describes how the maenads, “tortured by the agonizing pleasure,/Convulsed and on the rapid whirlwinds spun/Of that fierce spirit” (Shelley, “Triumph” 141, 142–4). Further, Shelley illustrates how this dance causes “maidens and youths [to] fling their wild arms in air” and to “throw back their heads and loose their streaming hair” (“Triumph” 149, 147). Again, one might notice a connection with “Ode to the West Wind” in the image of the maenads’ hair. However, these maenads sound more like those of Euripides, and not as much like the beautiful and symbolic one seen in “Ode to the West Wind.” They are “tortured” yet pleased at the same time; they are taking part in savagery and letting go of their civilized selves. Though much of this illustration sounds very similar to The Bacchae, one word in particular stands out: “youths” (Shelley, “Triumph” 149). All of the maenads in The Bacchae are female, but this scene of frenzied dancing features both male and female members, both “maidens and youths” (Shelley, “Triumph” 149). This choice to include both sexes calls to mind Adonais, with the fictionalized Shelley playing the part of a maenad in that poem. Shelley almost seems to want the ability to be a maenad, both in the way he dresses himself in a maenad’s garb in Adonais and in the way he shows young men partaking in Bacchic worship in “The Triumph of Life.” However, the poetic speaker in “The Triumph of Life” merely observes the dancing maenads, without joining them, and does not seem at all envious of their journey toward “bright destruction” (Shelley, “Triumph” 154). As this is the last poem that Shelley worked on, perhaps it shows his growing disillusionment with impassioned thinkers and artists that seem almost maenad-like to those who do not share their vigor. In Adonais, the Form is one of those passionate maenads, but in “The Triumph of Life,” the poetic speaker certainly is not.
Hugh Roberts’ “Spectators Turned Actors: ‘The Triumph of Life’” shines some additional light on the unfinished poem’s Bacchic imagery. Roberts agrees that the section of the poem analyzed above “is modeled on the maenadic fury of the followers of Dionysus” (766). According to him, “the maenad is for Shelley a positive image of the poetically inspired” (Roberts 766). This statement seems to be in agreement with my analyses of the other poems discussed in this paper, but not as much with “The Triumph of Life.” However, Roberts reminds us the poetic speaker might not necessarily be a direct mouthpiece for Shelley: “The poem’s narrator, however — about whom no information is given that allows us to identify him with Shelley, or anyone else — shares Rousseau’s viewpoint and, for the duration of extant fragment of the poem, is subject to his tutelage” (762). In other words, perhaps the poetic speaker of “The Triumph of Life” really sounds more like Rousseau than like Shelley. It is possible that Shelley’s feeling is that a follower of Rousseau would find Bacchic worship troublesome instead of beautiful, volatile instead of fiercely passionate. It is an interesting assertion on Roberts’ part, but one that certainly makes sense in the grand scheme of Shelley’s poetic corpus in reference to his usage of maenadic figures and imagery. If the poet is completely detached from the speaker in this case, then one can continue to argue for Shelley’s admiration of maenads.
Further, Hugh Roberts ties in the previously analyzed lines from Adonais in his discussion of “The Triumph of Life.” He states that “the self-portrait of Shelley carrying the thyrsus in Adonais…indicates his perspective as that of an actor in, and not a spectator of, the maenad’s maniac dance” (Roberts 766). Whereas the poetic speaker of “The Triumph of Life” is definitely a spectator of the frenzied, dancing maenads, the Shelley figure in Adonais instead plays his own vital role in the mania. Roberts’ argument in “Spectators Turned Actors: ‘The Triumph of Life’” deals in part with the fact that Shelley himself was once a follower of Rousseau, but grew to think of him “as one of those votaries of abstract reason the loss of whose works would not represent an incalculable blow to humanity” (763). Perhaps then the poetic speaker of “The Triumph of Life” is similar to Shelley after all — but a younger, more naïve Shelley who follows Rousseau and fears Bacchic passion. Regardless, one cannot simply write off the maenadic imagery seen in “The Triumph of Life” as ominous or negative in the eyes of Shelley, for they may very well be the opposite.
Five different works of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s have provided examples of the poet’s usage of Bacchic imagery and maenad figures in his writing, all of which are unique to their poems while also bearing numerous similarities to each other and providing cohesive insight to the mind of Shelley as a whole. Prometheus Unbound provides a rather complicated look into Shelley’s views on maenads, but ultimately seems to suggest that they are, in fact, complicated figures who are simultaneously dangerous and passionately loyal. “Ode to Liberty” serves to connect the artistic world of ancient Greece with the lively and revolutionary Enlightenment France for Shelley. It illustrates the fervor of maenads, and even likens the abstract concept of Liberty to a maenad, helping to complicate the allegory. In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley forms a connection between nature and Bacchic worship, commenting on the intense power and even spirituality of both. The maenadic imagery of Adonais is rather complicated as well, with Shelley placing a fictionalized version of himself in the role of a maenad. The critic Michael Scrivener argues that Shelley is attempting to describe the predicament of a great poet, feeling excluded from others and doomed to destruction and the mourning of a lost paradise. Hugh Roberts, on the other hand, feels that this self-casting has more to do with Shelley’s genuine desire to be a part of the maenads’ world of passion and creative inspiration. At the very least, it certainly seems that Shelley admires Dionysus’ followers, so much so that he would consider himself one of them, at least in a metaphorical sense. Finally, Shelley’s unfinished “The Triumph of Life” shows something like skepticism and even fear toward Bacchic worship, but as Hugh Roberts says, the poetic speaker’s voice and thoughts are not to be confused with Shelley’s. In fact, the poem’s speaker seems quite different than Shelley, so his positive view of maenads can stand. In the end, as we can see in these five texts, Greek maenads for Shelley represent a passionate, political, artistic power that is representative not only of ancient Greece and of Revolutionary France, but of Shelley’s own goals and feelings as a creator of art.
1. See “Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Chronology” in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose for Shelley’s biographical information.
2. See Stephen Esposito’s introduction to Medea, Hippolytus, Heracles, Bacchae for more information on the play’s importance, the life of Euripides, and the god Dionysus.
3. See Shelley’s essay “The Necessity of Atheism” for more on his feelings toward the Church.
4. See Euripides 821–36.
5. See Ovid’s Metamorphoses for a full account of the Actaeon myth. Briefly, though, Actaeon sees the goddess Artemis/Diana naked, and she then transforms him into a deer and has his hunting dogs savagely kill him.
Euripides. Medea, Hippolytus, Heracles, Bacchae. Edited by Stephen Esposito, Focus Publishing, 2004.
Goslee, Nancy M. “Pursuing Revision in Shelley’s ‘Ode to Liberty.’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 36, no. 2, 1994, pp. 166–83.
Jeffrey, Lloyd N. “‘Beasts of the Woods and Wildernesses’ in the Poetry of Shelley.” Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 21/22, 1972/1973, pp. 64–82.
Meagher, Robert E. Mortal Vision: The Wisdom of Euripides. St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Edited by David Scott Kastan, Hackett Publishing Company, 2005.
Reiman, Donald H., and Neil Fraistat, editors. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.
Roberts, Hugh. “Spectators Turned Actors: ‘The Triumph of Life.’” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, W. W. Norton & Company, 2002, pp. 760–8.
Scrivener, Michael. “Adonais: Defending the Imagination.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, W. W. Norton & Company, 2002, pp. 753–60.
Shelley, Percy B. Adonais. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, W. W. Norton & Company, 2002, pp. 407–27.
Shelley, Percy B. “Ode to Liberty.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, W. W. Norton & Company, 2002, pp. 307–15.
Shelley, Percy B. “Ode to the West Wind.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, W. W. Norton & Company, 2002, pp. 297–301.
Shelley, Percy B. Prometheus Unbound. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, W. W. Norton & Company, 2002, pp. 202–86.
Shelley, Percy B. “The Triumph of Life.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, W. W. Norton & Company, 2002, pp. 481–500.
Webb, Timothy. “Shelley and the Religion of Joy.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 15, no. 3, 1976, pp. 357–82.
Originally written November 2017