By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

13. Being Shelley, by Ann Wroe, pp. 343-390

Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself (Vintage)Part IV: Fire, 3. Being; Coda: The voyage out
Shelley was aware of the physical and astronomical truths about the stars, that they "are supposed to be suns, each of them the centre of a system like ours." Mary had given him an ivory-and-brass telescope for his 24th birthday. Still, they merged into his imagined cosmology quite easily, reinforced by Paracelsus's speculation that "the primordial stuff from which man was made ... was not merely dust and earth but an extract of the stars.... What Shelley gazed on, Shelley was."
In the act of making poetry, he already sensed his own fire. He had no need of stoves, galvanic machines or the trickery of Mephistopheles. His own refining agent was his poetic imagination.... Shelley called imagination "the Sun of life," that "lake-reflected sun" out of which his poems came. It was also the God of those poems, he told Hunt, "the master ... and the Spirit by which they live and are."
He referred to man as "pre-eminently an imaginative being," and quoted approvingly Tasso's statement, "non c'e in mondo chi merita nome di creatore, che Dio ed il Poeta" -- only God and the poet are worth of being called creators. "There might be no Creator-God in his universe, but he admitted naturally the possibility of a Mind holding in conception the landscape of the world, the colours of the atmosphere and the system of the stars, 'these things not before existing,' and imagining them forth, as he could.... As a Poet, his first duty was to shadow forth Reality; his second, to open readers' eyes to that 'wonder' within themselves."
When he wrote of the sun, ... he wrote of himself. He would not have wanted the public to know it, but they would not in any case suspect it. Almost every aspect of his "Hymn of Apollo" was also a canticle to his own imagination, making colour and form, bringing wisdom, bringing light.... No fire intrigued him more than the one that was himself. 
Shelley's reading of Plato led him into speculations about the soul and its immortality, including metempsychosis and the pre-existence of the soul. At Oxford he once snatched up a baby from its startled mother and gazed into its eyes, searching for evidence of its prenatal existence. He also speculated on the intermingling of souls, though he shied away from "any deeper expression of male love than linking arms joyously to walk, or snuggling close to the fire with Hunt in the comfort of each other. His beloved Greeks would have gone further, in acts Shelley squeamishly tried to idealise and to abstract entirely from the body." He was undisturbed by incest, however, fancying the union of brother and sister as "mystical and innocent."
Eventually it was ... Emilia Viviani ... to whom in 1821 Shelley dedicated his longest and most ecstatic poem of soul-seeking and soul-finding. Again in their letters they had become sister and brother.... She was his Epipsychidion, the soul out of my soul, a word by which he meant to hint again at the flaming night torches of the epithalamium or marriage song. But her earthly identity did not matter, for the poem's core, in truth, was not about her or any woman he knew.
He struggled, however, to articulate the essence of this mystical union of souls. "The same words appeared again and again in the crossed-out confusion of the Epipsychidion drafts: light and fire, life and motion, love. These were all he could think of, or cling to." Others, such as Mary and Byron, were sure that there was more of body than of soul in his attraction to Emilia.
During the period of depression he experienced after his expulsion from Oxford in 1811, he had had an epiphanic moment one morning when he saw the Morning Star, Venus, shining brightly, and it became his personal emblem. "Yet as a star-daemon, the shadow-messenger of Truth and Love and Beauty, he could not prevail on Earth.... The spirit of the Morning Star fought battles frequently, light against false light, and lost most of them."
As for immortality, "the only Heaven Shelley appeared to hope for was a steadily perfecting Earth.... Yet he knew even then that all earthly heavens were as transient as man was. He found absurd, even 'demoniacal,' Wordsworth's remark that happiness was found in the world 'or not at all.'"
In 1820, three arguing voices in his head strove to define where Heaven was and what it might be. The first saw it as the immeasurable, star-strewn container of all things and all time. The second, 'a Remoter Voice,' described it as the mind's first chamber, where bewildered insect-fancies faintly climbed and dreamed of glory. But the third, 'a Louder and still Remoter Voice,' saw a Heaven far more astonishing, a tiny globe of fire-dew at the centre of 'some eyed flower.'
But in the end, he fell back on the necessity of inarticulateness. In his Essay on Christianity he argued, "Where indefiniteness ends idolatry and anthropomorphism begin."
He finally rejected the idea of a personal immortality.
If his imagination was divine light and fire reflected in himself, his own imagining soul might be drawn back at last to the source of it, flame rejoining flame. In Adonais, almost willing this apotheosis, he began to foresee what might happen to him.
   The Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
   That Beauty in which all things work and move,
   That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse
   Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
   Which through the web of being blindly wove
   By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
   Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
   The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me,
Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality. 
In sum, "The end was possibly some sort of exquisite immolation in which nothing of him would survive." The last words he wrote were "an aching question:
Then, what is Life I cried -- 
The page was folded at the top. On the joining sheet, in faint outline, a boat began to appear."
On July 8, 1822, he and Edward Williams got in a boat, the Don Juan, and sailed out to sea. What was left of his body washed ashore ten days later.

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