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Painting "The Funeral of Shelley" by Louis Edouard

The Secret Influence of the Occult and Magic in the Work of Percy B. Shelley


The seduction that Rosicrucianism held over the young Percy Shelley left a mark on his work.

One of the most striking characteristics of Romanticism is that, though it’s well-named, as a more or less homogeneous artistic movement, there are actually notable differences which vary according to the contexts in which Romanticism occurred.

In a sense, it’s possible that a yet insufficiently explored vein of English Romanticism deals with the occult and with magic. As a more or less secret avenue stemming from the Rosicrucians, that legendary secret order founded in Germany in the 17th century, in England, it had a profound impact. This was to such an extent that one of England’s most admired thinkers, Robert Fludd, a mathematician and astronomer, besides being a student of the Kabbalah and the hermetic sciences, was also an enthusiastic supporter of Rosacrucianism.

Another major figure seduced by the ideas of the Rosicrucian order was Percy B. Shelley, the influential poet who, along with Lord Byron and his wife Mary Shelley and a few others, upheld the Romantic movement in Germany.

Posthumous portrait of Percy Shelley in Italy by Joseph Severn

The main work supporting this hypothesis is St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian: A Romance, Shelley’s short novel in which a young wanderer finds himself with a Rosicrucian alchemist in search of the secret of eternal youth. From what is known of Shelley (who in his days at Eton spent his money on books about magic and sorcery, and lived surrounded by all kinds of equipment for scientific research), this is a work that, at the very least, leans towards the autobiographical.

Further, a letter to William Godwin has Shelley declaring his spiritual affinity with teachers like Paracelsus, Albertus Magnus and Cornelius Agrippa, alchemists and proto-scientists who, in their own time, contributed significantly to the development of the science. Later, in his famous essay A Defence of Poetry, Shelley compared poetry with alchemical work, as it’s also an operation that transmutes and transforms, making the earthly and the mundane into something sublime, purified and elevated.

Illustration titled "Summoning of the Beloved Dead" by Paul Christian

Eternal youth, the possession of secrets, the existence of a parallel world of which few know even when it’s visible, the symbols, the coded language … it’s not entirely coincidental that the mind and the sensibility of a poet would be attracted to such notions.

Beyond the truth or falsity in the existence of an order like the Rosicrucians, the reality is manifest and palpable in its effects. On effect being, of course. the making of a young man in all his attempts to become an alchemist, into a poet.


Image Credits:

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Édouard Fournier (1889)
Portrait of Percy Shelley by Joseph Severn
Évocation des Morts Aimés (Summoning of the Beloved Dead) by Paul Christian in Histoire de la magie (History of Magic)

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