By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

12, Being Shelley, by Ann Wroe, pp. 317-340

Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself (Vintage)Part IV: Fire, 2. Burning
Having his own ideas about God, Shelley naturally had corresponding ones about God's adversary. Even as a boy he liked to play Satan and to conduct experiments with chemicals and incantations to raise the devil, and he terrified Harriet with talk of "his supreme Majesty the Devil." She overcame her fears only to have them resurrected by an experience in February 1813. They were in Wales, where Shelley had gotten involved with an effort to reclaim land from the sea, a project that had stout opposition. One night, Shelley heard a noise downstairs and took his pistols with him when he went to investigate. A man, who was leaving through a window, fired a shot at him and missed. Shelley returned fire but the man escaped, vowing revenge. A few hours later, he heard another noise at the window and someone fired another shot at him, which narrowly missed. "Shelley fired his own pistol and grabbed an old sword to beat the stranger off but then, losing him, set fire to the nearby woods to burn him alive.... Most probably, local enemies had come to scare the nuisance-radical away. But to Shelley, at the instant he saw him, he was the Devil."

For Shelley, "Satan and God alike were projections of man's mind, nothing else. They were sappers of his will, crushers of his potential, but self-made.... If God was the callous monarch, the Devil was 'the Informer, the Attorney General, and the jailor of the Celestial tribunal.'" But Satan was also himself, "the bad daemon twinned with the good." He found his archetype in Paradise Lost: "Milton, Shelley wrote, 'alleged no superiority of moral virtue to his God over his Devil.' In fact, the Devil was 'far superior.'.... Shelley's closing cry to enslaved manking in his Declaration of Rights was Satan's, to his angels, from Paradise Lost: 'Awake! -- arise! -- or be forever fallen.'" If Milton's Satan could only overcome "hate, pride and his own belief, amounting sometimes to despair, in the tyrant-God who tormented him ... [he] could be divine, as Shelley could. Only an act of will was needed."

Shelley believed "that God in his infinite cruelty had devised unending tortures for his creatures while tempting them, in their frailty and ignorance, towards the sin that would condemn them. The gift of 'most merciful God' to man was an eternity of pain. By contrast Satan's gift, through the fatal apple, had been self-knowledge."
Shelley kept the churchmen's Hell to bait God with, not believing it, fearing it or caring. And he could find smaller hells aplenty strewn across the universe. In his essay On the Devil and Devils he had cynical fun with the argument that the sun might be a Hell, swarming with devils as unconcerned about boiling as the animalculae he had seen in mutton broth, and that the countless comets might be needed as little hells too for the overflow of "sinners" and the "damned." With the mind of a bigot, he could make eternal torture chambers even of the stars. 
With his polemic pamphlets, Shelley practiced a kind of pyromania: "His writings were meant to start destroying and purifying fires, the words searing individually into minds and hears and igniting, he hoped, a roaring chain reaction." Peacock caricatured him in Nightmare Abbey as Scythrop Glowry, "a burnt child" who was the author of Philosophical Gas; or, a Project for a General Illumination of the Human Mind. Shelley liked the caricature "but both the enlightenment and the pyrotechnics were seriously meant." He once asked a man in Hampstead to help him find shelter for a sick woman and when the man refused, proclaimed "that if ever a 'convulsion' came to England, which was 'very probable,' 'you will have your house ... burnt over your head!'"

He was, in fact, a good shot, having handled firearms since childhood: "he was often the best at Byron's shooting afternoons in the vineyards outside Pisa, squarely hitting the pumpkin or the five-paul piece stuck in a cane, even though, Byron said, 'he is thinking of metaphysics rather than of firing.'" But his real weapon was the pen, which "carried his imaginings, glowing and dangerous: again, the reed tipped with flame, or the hollow stem in which Prometheus, his hero, had stolen fire from the gods."
After that sly theft, Prometheus had founded all the human arts that were most precious to Shelley. Language and words; music and prophetic song; the art of building in columns to admit the air, and the science of navigation by the stars. Each talent forged by Prometheus was  touched by the leaping life of imagination, the fire he had stolen, approaching the divine.... In Aeschylus's fragment Prometheus Bound, from which Shelley developed his own "lyrical drama," Prometheus had been intended eventually to reach a pact with Jupiter. Shelley rejected "a catastrophe so feeble." His Prometheus would make no deals with tyrants. 
Shelley's attitude toward Jesus Christ was ambivalent. He "hated the 'Galilean serpent'; but he could stomach his name, even revere it, once the trappings of established Christianity had been stripped away. Christ as the Son of God, he had written in 1812, was 'a hypocritical Daemon,' Christ as a man, on the other hand, 'stands in the foremost list of those true heroes who have died in the glorious martyrdom of liberty.'" Shelley paired this Jesus "with Socrates, an outcast from the state."

His chief weapon was Love, which "was the law of life. Creation, motion, gravitation, magnetism, heat and electricity were all that force.... Love was infinite, unsatiated, ever divisible and inexhaustible; to share and divide it (as with Harriet, Mary, Claire, Emilia, Jane) was merely to increase it. In his new Promethean world, growing towards perfection, Love would be 'common as light,' and light itself." But he was also "not such an optimist, or a fool, to believe that this would last. Nothing on Earth lasted. History moved in inexorable cycles. ... Prometheus would become Jupiter again." 

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