By Charles Matthews

Friday, August 6, 2010

1. Being Shelley, by Ann Wroe, pp. ix-34

Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself (Vintage)Introduction; Prelude: The Voyage Out; Part I: Earth, 1. Substance
Ann Wroe says her book is "an experiment, ... an attempt to write the life of a poet from the inside out: that is, from the perspective of the creative spirit struggling to discover its true nature." She wants to "reconstruct the world of a poet into which earthly life keeps intruding," because she regrets that, in the twentieth century, so much attention was directed at Shelley's politics that "his spiritual force seems to have been largely forgotten." The narrative of the book is not chronological but instead tracks "the poet's quest for truth through the steadily rarefying elements of earth, water, air and fire." And if the book shifts the focus away from the life to the ideas, so be it. Shelley believed, "No revolution in the moral and social order could take place until he, and all men and women, knew themselves for what they were and could unlock the true power they possessed."

Wroe's "Prelude: the voyage out" is an impressionist series of vignettes in which the poet launches his words onto the sea in paper boats on which the ink begins to "blur and run." Each is "a shell of woven paper" moving "intrepidly and madly on the sea." "To the casual eye he was on shore, a tall, stooped young man with tangled hair and yet more boats in his pockets.... Yet in reality he was out on the huge sea adventuring, one of them." Inevitably the boats sink, foreshadowing the poet's own death: "His body would go on falling through the blue deep, softly, like paper. He had once told a small boy, watching with him, that this would be his favourite of all deaths."

Charles MacFarlane remembered his first encounter with Shelley in the Royal Bourbon Museum in Naples in February 1819. The stranger, who joined him in admiring a statue, had a "soft and strangely touching" voice and "was a gentleman of twenty-five or twenty-six, thin, with a delicate and negligent, even wild, appearance." Their conversation left MacFarlane with "fragments of deep thought, like leaves from a private notebook."

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born at Field Place, Horsham, Sussex, in 1792. His father was Timothy Shelley, a landowner who would become a baronet in 1815. Bysshe, as his family called him, was the oldest child, and would be joined by four sisters and, 14 years later, a brother. He attended Syon House Academy and Eton, but was expelled from Oxford after one term, in 1811, for writing, along with Thomas Jefferson Hogg, "a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism." In August he eloped with 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook, and after that marriage failed in 1814 with Mary Godwin, the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary's step-half-sister, Jane Clairmont, who would later be called Claire, went with them France and Germany and set up house with them after they returned to England. His father cut off ties with him, and in 1817, the Lord Chancellor "deprived him, on the double grounds of immorality and atheism, of the two infant children of his first marriage. He left England for Italy in March 1818.

Shelley told many stories about his childhood, but Hogg observed, "He was altogether incapable of rendering an account of any transaction whatsoever, according to the strict and precise truth, and the bare naked realities of actual life." Sometimes he thought of himself as a farmer, which is what he entered as his occupation on the register when he married Harriet. He was interested in agricultural chemistry and his poetic imagery often reflects his rural background. He inspected things so closely that people thought he was near-sighted, but "Shelley himself sometimes complained not of dim vision but the reverse."
One of his most treasured possessions, from boyhood onwards, was a solar microscope in a heavy mahogany box that projected, on a sheet or a wall, giant images of the animalculae that wriggled in vinegar, or the overlapping plates of a fly's wing, or the mites entombed in cheese.... He believed with Erasmus Darwin, whose books on science and Nature he also devoured as a schoolboy, that the minute worlds he saw suffered and felt as he did.... From his earliest years of scientific enquiry Shelley pictured Nature as one concurring whole, with an iron chain of Necessity binding the smallest to the mightiest.
Following the logic of Hume, he rejected the notion of "a designer and a cause," setting forth his ideas in The Necessity of Atheism. For him, "Unending mutability was the nature of existence.... Chance atoms came together: Shelley lived. He would die when by some stroke they dispersed again."

For all his ties to the land, "Earth was not his element, either in its substance or its society." He simply didn't like getting dirty: "At Eton he roared with pain when leather footballs, caked and soaked from the field, were kicked deliberately and hard against the boy who would not play games.... 'Filth' was almost the strongest word in his lexicon, a spasm of horror." But for all his finickiness, he was a fighter:
Contemporaries remembered ... a prankster and a brawler, a tall, slovenly looking boy (though also like 'a girl in Boy's clothes') who flailed around with his fists and was fearsomely violent when thwarted. Yet in his mind he was the quiet, trembling youth at the edge of the playing field.
At some point, he seems to have had an epiphany of sorts, a "sudden awakening, on one particular morning, to the shadow of the Spirit of Beauty in the world.... Several of his poems described the moment of conversion, but enclosed it in details too vague to pinpoint where or when it had occurred." In any case, it seems to have confirmed him in his radicalism.

His relationship with his parents was one manifestation of this radicalism. "He nursed no strong feelings for his mother, whom he thought mildly ineffectual and 'narrow-minded.' Towards his father he came to feel nothing but loathing and defiance." His father was shocked by everything he did, but especially when in April 1811, he decided "to give up the entail on his grandfather's estate, exchanging a secure landed inheritance for £200 yearly in cash." Even the annuity was cut off in August, when he eloped with Harriet Westbrook. For Shelley, his father symbolized tyranny. Shelley believed that his father, whom he referred to as "Old Buck" "had never loved him, but only the continuation of a name, property and status he represented, like a house or a field."

But though the break with his father left him destitute, Shelley never gave up his taste for luxury. At Oxford he "wore extraordinary clothes," and after he was expelled he boasted that he could live on £50 a year. But by 1817 he was in debt to the most fashionable upholsterers in Bath for £1,192 1s. 10d. He skipped out on the debt when he left for Italy. "For most of his life he kept horses and a carriage," but by 1819 he had decided that
It was the duty of the rich man to give and the right of the poor man to demand. On that principle, Shelley gave away his shoes (arriving at a neighbour's barefoot), his money, and Mary's clothes, continuing to hand out spontaneous charity until the last weeks of his life. On the same principle he took other men's books, and raided [Leigh] Hunt's wardrobe for waistcoats and handkerchiefs he might need himself. To take as well as give -- though sometimes blushing "not a little," Hunt said, in doing it -- was proper redistributive justice. 
But he also looked down on the poor: "most men, he was convinced, lived in a state of 'squalid ignorance, & moral imbecility' from which he foresaw no improvement." And he felt a contempt for the physical: "The link between political oppression, moral evil and physical degradation was all too obvious to him. The common folk of Dublin were 'one mass of animated filth,' the Austrian-occupied Italians 'stupid & shrivelled slaves.'" He thought that human corruption was the result not of "original sin" but of education, of "the 'wrong impressions' stamped on the young by nurses and parents and, if they grew older, by the barbarity of schools and systems of government."

Shelley himself was "tall, vigorous and strong-limbed.... In his notebooks he drew himself naked and muscle-bound, often with weapons in his hands." But the Poet thought of himself as frail and sickly, as susceptible to "'the contagion of the world's slow stain,' so easily fatal to poets, the sort of languors and vapours and excessive sensibilities that made young men throw themselves into chairs with their handkerchiefs pressed to their faces." He suffered from what may have been kidney stones and his hair had premature gray touches, "a syphilitic symptom that filled him with foreboding."

For a while he seemed to live on bread and milk and tea, but with occasional indulgences in gluttony. "From at least the age of nineteen, he was a practising vegetarian" and when he wanted to evoke a sense of horror "he described the eating of flesh, usually human, dwelling on its warm fibrous feel between his teeth and the rust or salt 'bitterness' of blood." He drank mostly water -- alcohol overstimulated him. "Yet his resolution wavered. He was found demolishing bacon ('Bring more bacon!') and feasting on veal chops, well peppered. Cold meat was discovered on his luncheon plate in Italy.... In general, however, the diet and the scruples were observed." Byron worried that if the Shelleys were to raise his daughter Allegra, "she would 'perish of Starvation, and green fruit.'"

He was thought to be mad by a lot of people, including sometimes himself. "This madness was always of the same kind: seeing what others could not see, yearning for what others could not fathom, not belonging." In Julian and Maddalo, "He was both the serious, idealistic Julian ... and a Maniac in a madhouse."
Each Shelley-character held a memory -- disturbed, but not eclipsed, even by stark grief -- of a blissful, momentary, controlling presence both within and beyond himself. This was what had made him mad.... Under its influence, Shelley had made his boyhood vow -- stumblingly, but devotedly -- to Truth, Beauty, Liberty and Love.... He did not know to whom, or what, he made this promise. For years he could not even try to name what it was that had so moved him. But his search for it became his history, and his life.

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