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The current political unrest spreading along the southern edge of the Mediterranean has held the attention of the world's media for weeks. But in all the column inches devoted to discussion of the likely prospects for these uprisings, and of the stance which the West should adopt towards both the region's dictators (often, of course, our erstwhile friends and business partners) and the people struggling to cast off their governments, it has not been noticed that the shape of these events was strangely foretold nearly two hundred years ago by an English poet writing about the recent European past.

When Shelley composed The Revolt of Islam he thought he was writing a work of philosophic history, not a prophecy. The poem is set in the dejecting aftermath of the failure of the French Revolution, "when the last hope of trampled France had failed/Like a brief dream of unremaining glory" (I.1). The narrator of the poem, haunted by "visions of despair" as a result of the extinguishing of the revolutionary cause, climbs to the top of a cliff where he sees flying towards him an eagle fighting with a serpent. Eventually the eagle prevails:

    [...]when lifeless, stark, and rent,
    Hung high that mighty Serpent, and at last
    Fell to the sea, while o'er the continent,
    With clang of wings and scream the Eagle passed,
    Heavily borne away on the exhausted blast.  

The wounded serpent is collected by an anonymous woman in a magical boat "of rare device, which had no sail/But its own curvèd prow of thin moonstone". She sails with the narrator and the serpent to a revolutionary Valhalla where "sate on many a sapphire throne,/The Great, who had departed from mankind,/A mighty Senate". They are followed by two new arrivals:

[...]two mighty Spirits now return,
        Like birds of calm, from the world's raging sea,
        They pour fresh light from Hope's immortal urn;
        A tale of human power — despair not — list and learn!

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June 13th, 2014
10:06 AM
I concur; after having plodded through six cantos (that's halfway), I didn't quite see the point of continuing. Tedious, dense language and a fair amount of repetition (e.g. the 'leaves in autumn' trope) and his obscure ideas made me lose interest. To be sure, there are elements that did get my attention, particularly the frequent occasions of paradox. The poem abounds in strange combinations of terms such as "unquiet trance", "the peace of madness", "chains / of sweet captivity", etc. which are intriguing and typical of Romantic poetry. And as for the "prophetic" character of this poem, I'm afraid the epithet is apt only in a most generalised, perhaps even forced, sense.

November 5th, 2013
7:11 AM
The writer, Mr Womersley, is drawing a long bow here methinks with parallels to the 'Arab Spring'. Inspired by a related curiosity I've made several attempts but been bogged down and bushwhacked by this poem each time. So I checked back to some of the contemporary reviews and found I am not alone there, in the bog. (I'm sympathetic to Shelley and what he stood for.) Nothing made much sense to me, starting from the pointlessness of the title and struggling on through the text. The clearest exposition of the poem I've found, and it is good, is in Bernard Blackstones's The Lost Travellers. I'd recommend that to anyone who's interested and has the stamina to persevere with the poem.

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