The poem is structured in nine cantos and was privately published in 1813. Only 250 copies were printed, and these were distributed among Shelley's close friends and acquaintances. The incremental nature of revolution was the theme of his poem, influenced by the aftermath of the French Revolution and William Godwin's idea of "necessity". Shelley believed that the human spirit was essentially virtuous, and that incremental change over time, rather than violent revolution, would overcome society's ills and improve the human condition.
Although the poem was intended for a small and private audience, surplus copies were stored in William Clark's bookshop in London. In 1821, the shopkeeper printed an expurgated edition, and distributed the pirated editions through the black market. The poem created a scandal and was "pounced upon" by the Society for the Prevention of Vice, leading to a dozen more pirated editions. Shelley sought to curtail piracy of the poem, but the poem was deemed illegal and thus not eligible for copyright. William Clark was imprisoned for 4 months for publishing and distributing Queen Mab.
The poem itself is a fairy tale, in which Queen Mab descends to the sleeping Ianthe, taking her spirit to a utopian future world of Shelley's ideals.
How wonderful is Death, Death and his brother Sleep! One, pale as yonder waning moon With lips of lurid blue; The other, rosy as the morn When throned on ocean's wave It blushes o'er the world: Yet both so passing wonderful!
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