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  • Shelley’s Quest for Persian Love
  • Elham Nilchian

The Romantic period bears witness to a scene where the Romantic subject is capable of selflessness and loss of self in its interaction with an ideal visionary beloved. The Romantics pursue a sense of mystical oneness with the divine—God, Nature, or an ideal beloved—in a moment in which the Romantic subject seeks perfection through obliteration of its own self in the face of the idealised other conceived as a whole. The male subject’s search for an ideal female other and his desire to lose self in order to become one with her has connections with Sufism, where this loss of self is referred to as fanaa. In this article I intend to examine such moments of the Romantic subject’s self-loss in his beloved other, with special reference to Persian Sufi literature and the extent to which Shelley was inspired by and employed its motifs and images in his poetry.

In order to gain insight into Shelley’s perspective on the idea of self-loss and how he was inspired by Persian literature to draw on this Sufi idea, I will look into the critical field in relation to Romanticism and Gender-Orientalism. I will then discuss the eighteenth-century Scottish philosophical position on the idea of self-loss in sympathy with the other. The article will go on to consider the range of Persian motifs that were drawn on by Shelley in his later poems such as “The Indian Girl’s Song” (1819), “Music” (“I pant for the music which is divine”) (1819), “To Jane: The Recollection” (1822), and “From the Arabic: An Imitation” (1820). I will look closely at the repeating motif of the love of the rose and the nightingale, the image of the poet as the nightingale, the wine cup and the cupbearer (saaqi) in Persian poetry as having been represented by Shelley in the above-mentioned poems, along with his imitation of some poetic devices and measures of Persian poetry in composing those poems. The paper will then offer a comparison between Shelley’s Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude and the Persian poem Leili and Majnun in light of the loss of the subject’s self into and for the beloved other.

To examine Shelley’s attitude toward self, let us first consider an example from “A Defence of Poetry” (written 1821, published 1840), in which he refers to selflessness as a sort of compassion:

The great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely [End Page 222] and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others […] The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination […].1

Having the power to imagine oneself “in the place of another” is equal to love and goodness for Shelley. It is a going out of one’s self, as it were, selflessness, which is only possible through poetry.

In Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude (1816) Shelley displays two distinct attitudes toward the poet-persona: the first one is a “self-centred” reclusive poet, who, “loving nothing on this earth […] keep[s] aloof from sympathies with [his] kind, rejoicing neither in human joy nor mourning with human grief,” and is “morally dead,” as Shelley remarks in the “Preface” of his poem.2 He goes on to say that “[t]hose who love not their fellow-beings, live unfruitful lives.”3 However, this is not all Shelley proposes in Alastor. In the course of the poem he introduces the Poet whose seclusion he praises in that it comes as a result of a vision and the desire provoked by that vision for “intercourse with an intelligence similar to itself.”4 It is a poet who “images to himself the Being whom he loves” and seeks self-perfection through losing his egotistic self for that idealised Being. Whereas the selfless sympathetic...


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pp. 222-244
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