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Percy Bysshe’s Shelley’s narrative poem Laon and Cythna is about a failed revolution—or is it?Laon and Cythna was quickly suppressed by Shelley’s publisher, who feared he would be prosecuted for its revolutionary ideas and its depiction of incest between the two title characters, a brother and sister (it was later republished in its revised form as The Revolt of Islam). The siblings lead a rebellion against the Sultan of a city called Islam, which is liberated briefly before being recaptured by the Sultan’s armies. Laon and Cythna are burnt at the stake, or seem to be: just before they die, they are spirited away to a mysterious island, where the poet who recounts their story meets and talks to them. The poem asks what it means for a political movement to succeed, or to fail, and presents Shelley’s revolutionary ideas in a suspenseful narrative.
Historical appendices provide context for Shelley’s political and philosophical works, the poem’s feminist ideals, and the treatment of Asia and the Middle East in Romantic literature.