Percy Bysshe Shelley: ‘Atheist. Lover of Humanity. Democrat’

by Graham Henderson

This is how how Shelley described himself, during a visit to Chamonix and Mont Blanc in mid July 1816, in the company of Mary Godwin (later his wife), and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. According to his biographer, James Bieri, he “made at least four such registry inscriptions, including two hotels in Chamonix, an inn perhaps at Sallanches, and the mountain hut on the Montenvers.”
Of these, by far the most important has become the entry made at the Hotel de Villes de Londres, for on 19 July 2016 (almost exactly 200 years later), the University of Cambridge made a startling and almost completely unheralded announcement. They were in possession of a page from the register of a hotel in Chamonix: not just any page and not just any hotel. The hotel was the Hotel de Villes de Londres and the page in question was the one upon which Percy Bysshe Shelley had inscribed his famous declaration that he was an atheist, a lover of humanity and a democrat. Not a copy of it….the page. See their release here.
No reproduction or copy of this page has ever, to my knowledge been made available to the public. Evidence for what Shelley wrote was based almost exclusively on the reports of other people, such as Southey, Byron, or the Lutheran minister, John Pye Smith. In legal terms this is called “hearsay” and is notoriously unreliable. This new discovery will change, I think, the way the crucial incident in Shelley’s life is interpreted. A low resolution copy of the register page was provided on line by the University of Cambridge and appears below:

Page from hotel register, University of Cambridge

Page from hotel register, 23 July 1816, Trinity College, Cambridge

The Greek words for “atheist”, “lover of humanity” and “democrat” appear in the middle of the page on the right hand side.  Many people have sought to diminish the importance of these words and the circumstances under which they were written. Some modern scholars have even ridiculed him. I think his choice of words was very deliberate and central to how he defined himself and how wanted the world to think of him. They may well have been the words he was most famous (or infamous) for in his lifetime.

Shelley’s atheism and his political philosophy was at the heart of his poetry and his revolutionary agenda (yes, he had one). Our understanding of Shelley is impoverished to the extent we ignore or diminish its importance.

The Priory, Gabriel Charton, Chamonix, 1821

The Priory, Gabriel Charton, Chamonix, 1821

Mont Blanc was a routine stop on the so-called ‘Grand Tour’. In fact, so many people visited it, that you will find Shelley in his letters bemoaning the fact that the area was “overrun by tourists.” With the Napoleonic wars only just at an end, English tourists were again flooding the continent. While in Chamonix, many would have stayed at the famous Hotel de Villes de Londres, as did Shelley. As today, the lodges and guest houses of those days maintained a ‘visitor’s register’; unlike today those registers would have contained the names of a virtual who’s who of upper class society. RyanAir was not flying English punters in for day visits. What you wrote in such a register was guaranteed to be read by literate, well connected aristocrats – even if you penned your entry in Greek – as Shelley did.

The words Shelley wrote in the register of the Hotel de Villes de Londres (under the heading “Occupation”) were (as translated by PMS Dawson): “philanthropist, an utter democrat, and an atheist”. The words were, as I say, written in Greek. The Greek word he used for philanthropist was philanthropos tropos. The origin of the word and its connection to Shelley is very interesting. Its first use appears in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, the Greek play which Shelley was ‘answering’ with his masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound. Aeschylus used his newly coined word philanthropos tropos (humanity loving) to describe Prometheus. The word was picked up by Plato and came to be much commented upon, including by Bacon, one of Shelley’s favourite authors. Bacon considered philanthropy to be synonymous with ‘goodness’, which he connected with Aristotle’s idea of ‘virtue’.

What do the words Shelley selected mean and why is it important? First of all, most people today would shrug at his self-description. Today, most people share democratic values and they live in a secular society where even in America as many as one in five people are unaffiliated with a religion; so claiming to be an atheist is not exactly controversial today. As for philanthropy, well, who doesn’t give money to charity, and in our modern society, the word philanthropy has been reduced to this connotation. I suppose many people would assume that things might have been a bit different in Shelley’s time – but how controversial could it be to describe yourself in such a manner? Context, it turns out, is everything. In his time, Shelley’s chosen labels shocked and scandalised society and I believe they were designed to do just that. Because in 1816, the words ‘philanthropist, democrat and atheist’ were fighting words.

Shelley would have understood the potential audience for his words, and it is therefore impossible not to conclude that Shelley was being deliberately provocative. In the words of P.M.S. Dawson, he was “nailing his colours to the mast-head”. As we shall see, he even had a particular target in mind: none other than Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Word of the note spread quickly throughout England. The Lutheran Minister John Pye Smith acidly reported to Shelley’s distant relatives, Sir John and Lady Shelley, that he was sure they did not want to be “confounded with a Mr. Percy Bysshe Shelley, of Sussex, & his lady; whose names we had seen in every Inn’s Register since we left Cluse, with the horrid avowal of atheism industriously subjoined.’

As you can see from the image of the register, Shelley’s signature has been underlined twice – but by whom? Well, our biographies do tell us something about this. For generations, biographers, relying on a claim made by Byron, have believed that Byron, upon encountering Shelley’s entry some weeks later, scribbled out Shelley’s name. He claims to have done this to protect his friend’s reputation. Biographers have universally taken Byron at his word, David Ellis remarks that, “[Byron] must have felt that Shelley was too young to understand fully what a red rag to a bull of English public opinion the word ‘atheist’ would be, and how quickly news of its offensive presence would be spread…” . Personally I find that assertion ridiculous. For his part, Richard Holmes concludes, “Byron…immediately felt obliged to cross it out as indelibly as possible for Shelley’s own protection.”  Again, ridiculous. The Byron I know was hardly solicitous of the reputations of others and relished controversy. Well, we now have evidence that Byron’s story may well have been false.

What we see when we look at the register is that quite apart from scribbling Shelley’s name out, someone (and who else but Byron) underlined it not once but twice. Professor Wilson would seem to agree:

“Lord Byron, no stranger to scandal, claimed to have struck out one of Shelley’s inscriptions. There are grounds to think that this is Byronic hyperbole and that it was Byron who in fact underlined, rather than struck out, Shelley’s name in the hotel register”.

Now many motives may be ascribed to this if we are to assume that the underlining is Byron’s. One could conclude, charitably, that Byron delighted in his friend’s provocative action and sought to draw attention to it. On the other hand it could have been a crude attempt to compound what he might have viewed as Shelley’s indiscretion. We can’t forget that for all of his bluster, Byron was anything but an atheist or even deist. Given that fact that he appears to have lied about his action, the latter conclusion seems the more likely. There is something of an irony bound up in this. If in fact Byron did this to attract unwelcome attention to Shelley’s provocative statements, he actually would have played right into Shelley’s hand – for Shelley would have most likely thanked Byron for helping to draw attention to his declaration.

While Shelley was not a household name in England, he was the son of a baronet whose patron was one of the leading Whigs of his generation, Lord Norfolk. Behaviour such as this was bound to and did attract attention. Many would also have remembered that Shelley had been actually expelled from Oxford for publishing a notoriously atheistical tract, The Necessity of Atheism.

While his claim to be an atheist attracted most of the attention, the other two terms were freighted as well. ‘Democrat’ then had the connotations it does today but such connotations in his day were clearly inflammatory (the word “utter” acting as an exclamation mark). The term ‘philanthropist’ is more interesting because at that time it did not merely connote donating money, it had overt political and even revolutionary overtones. To be an atheist or a philanthropist or a democrat, and Shelley was all three, was to be fundamentally opposed to the ruling order and Shelley wanted the world to know it.

What made Shelley’s atheism even more likely to occasion outrage was the fact that English tourists went to Mont Blanc specifically to have a religious experience occasioned by their experience of the ‘sublime’. Indeed, Timothy Webb speculates that at least one of Shelley’s entries might have been in response to another comment in the register which read, “Such scenes as these inspires, then, more forcibly, the love of God”. If not in answer to this, then most certainly Shelley was responding to Coleridge, who, in his head note to “Hymn Before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni,” had famously asked, “Who would be, who could be an Atheist in this valley of wonders?” In a nutshell Shelley’s answer was: “I could!!!”

Mont Blanc, 16 May 2016, Graham Henderson

Mont Blanc, 16 May 2016, Graham Henderson

The reaction to Shelley’s entry was predictably furious and focused almost exclusively on Shelley’s choice of the word ‘atheist’. For example, this anonymous comment appeared in the London Chronicle:

Mr. Shelley is understood to be the person who, after gazing on Mont Blanc, registered himself in the album as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Atheist; which gross and cheap bravado he, with the natural tact of the new school, took for a display of philosophic courage; and his obscure muse has been since constantly spreading all her foulness of those doctrines which a decent infidel would treat with respect and in which the wise and honourable have in all ages found the perfection of wisdom and virtue.

Shelley’s decision to write the inscription in Greek was even more provocative because as Webb points out, Greek was associated with “the language of intellectual liberty, the language of those courageous philosophers who had defied political and religious tyranny in their allegiance to the truth.”

The concept of the ‘sublime’ was one of the dominant (and popular) subjects of the early 19th Century. It was widely believed that the natural sublime could provoke a religious experience and confirmation of the existence of the deity. This was a problem for Shelley because he believed that religion was the principle prop for the ruling (tyrannical) political order. As Cian Duffy in Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime has suggested, Prometheus Unbound, like much of his other work, “was concerned to revise the standard, pious or theistic configuration of that discourse [on the natural sublime] along secular and politically progressive lines….” Shelley believed that the key to this lay in the cultivation of the imagination. An individual possessed of an ‘uncultivated’ imagination, would contemplate the natural sublime in a situation such as Chamonix Valley, would see god at work, and this would then lead inevitably to the “falsehoods of religious systems.” In Queen Mab, Shelley called this the ‘deifying’ response and believed it was an error that resulted from the failure to ‘rightly’ feel the ‘mystery’ of natural ‘grandeur’:

“The plurality of worlds, the indefinite immensity of the universe is a most awful subject of contemplation. He who rightly feels its mystery and grandeur is in no danger of seductions from the falsehoods of religious systems or of deifying the principle of the universe” (Notes to Queen Mab).

He believed that a cultivated imagination would not make this error.

This view was not new to Shelley, it was shared, for example, by Archibald Alison whose 1790 Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste made the point that people tended to ‘lose themselves’ in the presence of the sublime. He concluded, “this involuntary and unreflective activity of the imagination leads intentionally and unavoidably to an intuition of God’s presence in Creation”. Shelley believed this himself and theorised explicitly that it was the uncultivated imagination that enacted what he called this “vulgar mistake.” This theory comes to full fruition in Act III of Prometheus Unbound where, as Duffy notes,

“…their [Demogorgon and Asia] encounter restates the foundational premise of Shelley’s engagement with the discourse on the natural sublime: the idea that natural grandeur, correctly interpreted by the ‘cultivated imagination, can teach the mind politically potent truths, truths that expose the artificiality of the current social order and provide the blueprint for a ‘prosperous’, philanthropic reform of ‘political institutions’.

Shelley’s atheism was thus connected to his theory of the imagination and we can now understand why his ‘rewriting’ of the natural sublime was so important to him.

If Shelley was simply a non-believer, this would be bad enough, but as he stated in the visitor’s register he was also a ‘democrat’; and by democrat Shelley really meant republican, and modern analysts have now actually placed him within the radical tradition of philosophical anarchism. Shelley made part of this explicit when he wrote to Elizabeth Hitchener stating,

“It is this empire of terror which is established by Religion, Monarchy is its prototype, Aristocracy may be regarded as symbolizing its very essence. They are mixed – one can now scarce be distinguished from the other.”

This point is made again in Queen Mab where Shelley asserts that the anthropomorphic god of Christianity is the “the prototype of human misrule”  and the spiritual image of monarchical despotism. In his book Romantic Atheism, Martin Priestman points out that the corrupt emperor in Laon and Cythna is consistently enabled by equally corrupt priests. As Paul Foot avers in Red Shelley, “Established religions, Shelley noted, had always been a friend to tyranny”. Dawson for his part suggests, “The only thing worse than being a republican was being an atheist, and Shelley was that too; indeed, his atheism was intimately connected with his political revolt”.
Three explosive little words that harbour a universe of meaning and significance. The Cambridge document has yielded other surprises and mysteries such as quote from Palms 14.1 (who inserted it?) and a third name (Claire’s?) that was scratched out (by whom and why?). You can find more on the hotel register by following this link to my article at
Bieri, James. Percy Bysshe Shelley; A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008
Dawson, P.M.S. The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelley and Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
Ellis, David. Byron in Geneva, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press,( 2011
Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit Weidenfield. London: and Nicolson, 1974

This post originally appeared on Graham’s Shelley blog

Graham HendersonGraham Henderson is President of Music Canada, an association that promotes the interests of the Canadian music community.  He is Chair of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and in 2013 he was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame and received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.  He is a lifelong student of Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as of Canadian, Russian and Ancient history – Cicero is a favourite. Graham graduated from the University of Guelph with a double major in English Literature and Fine Art History. He completed his Masters at the University of Toronto, writing on ‘Prometheus Unbound and the Problem of Opposite’.