By Charles Matthews

Saturday, August 7, 2010

2. Being Shelley, by Ann Wroe, pp. 37-56

Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself (Vintage)Part I: Earth, 2. Chains through "... The which I make & call it melody"
Shelley's tour of the dungeons of the Castle of Chillon in 1816 reinforced a fascination with prisons as a manifestation of the restrictions placed on liberty. He regarded the schools he had attended as prisons, and had once been imprisoned himself, for debt, in 1817.
In his view slavery pervaded life, even the otiose and disgusting lives of emperors, priests and kings. He drew them on iron thrones, weighed under iron sceptres, heavily dragging their carcasses to east and shackled to the very systems they imposed on others. Under them, the people groaned.... If man was a slave, woman was his "bond-slave." Shelley saw young women downtrodden and dishonoured by convention -- models of his favourite heroine, Antigone, destroyed by her love and pity by the Theban laws -- while young men like himself were forced to visit prostitutes by "monkish" rules of chastity that spread disease and repair. 
Children, in Shelley's view, had it worst, "restrained by parental discipline, church, school, and worse" -- the horror of child labor. It led him in August 1811 to "rescue" Harriet Westbrook from the school she attended in Clapham. She was sixteen and he was nineteen, and he really didn't want to marry her -- "Matrimony revolted him" as another form of bondage. But he did so on August 29, 1811, in Edinburgh. He made his attempts to educate her, teaching her Latin and converting her to vegetarianism. "Yet her mind was in fetters of another kind, bound by propriety, seemliness and fashion as tightly as ribbons on a bonnet, and Shelley could neither change her nor, in the end, save her." Her older sister, Eliza, moved in with them in October, bringing "censoriousness and rectitude, scolding and 'nerves,' while endlessly brushing her long black hair." Shelley, the believer in free love, "was now confined, numb, tranquillised."

Their daughter, Ianthe, was born in 1813, and they renewed their vows in 1814, just in case the marriage in Scotland was judged illegal. But that summer he met Mary Godwin, who was sixteen and "imbued with the feminist free-thinking of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had died just after she was born." They had sex "in St Pancras churchyard, by her mother's grave," in June 1814 and a month later fled to Scotland, leaving Harriet, who was four months pregnant. He wrote Harriet preachy letters about how she had failed to follow the path to freedom he had shown her. "In curt postscripts, he asked her to send him 'hanks' and stockings and to lend him money." Harriet committed suicide in December 1816, and "he was forced by custom and the Godwins" to marry Mary on December 30.

Mary had "been a kindred soul" and had perhaps even slept with his friend Hogg with his encouragement, but she "became a fretting and domesticated wife," jealous of Claire Clairmont, her step-half-sister -- christened Jane -- who had joined them when they eloped. The high-strung Claire also got on Mary's nerves. Mary gave birth to William in 1816 and Clara in 1817, but the move to Italy in 1818 proved fatal to the children, both of whom died in the summer of 1819. That November a third child, Percy Florence, was born, but the Shelleys had fallen out of love with each other. "When he could he escaped with Claire, who would love him -- perhaps physically, perhaps not -- but would not, in any case, possess him.

In 1820, he became acquainted with Teresa Emilia Viviani, nineteen, who was boarding in a convent in Pisa while waiting to be married. Shelley saw her as another prisoner and wrote poems to her, but Emilia chose to get married once the contract was arranged and "to live contentedly and soberly with her 'clod of earth.'" Like so many others, however, Emilia asked him for money. "For most of his life Shelley had enough, either in anticipation or reality, to be 'the purse of his friends,' including [Leigh] Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock and Claire." His father-in-law, William Godwin, also "made it clear that it was Shelley's duty to bail him out.... By August 1819 he reckoned he had given Godwin £4,700, and had 'bought bitter knowledge' with it. That begging was to continue, and worsen, for the remaining three years of Shelley's life."

Shelley's father had cut off his allowance for a few months when he eloped with Harriet, so Shelley knew what it was like to need money. But it didn't teach him to handle it wisely. "His private income -- eventually settled as an annuity of £1,000 when, in 1815, his grandfather's death freed up his funds -- removed him fom the sordidness of earning a living." But when he had money he spent it or gave it away, and he borrowed at "such colossal rates of interest that by March 1822, four months before his death, he reckoned his debts might amount to £25,000."

His wanderings were expensive, too. "To tie him to any particular landscape, as Wordsworth was tethered to his lakes and fells, was hopeless.... [H]e moved incessantly." In 1811, when he left Oxford, he went to London, York, Edinburgh, Keswick and Dublin. Then to Wales, Devon, Wales again, Ireland again, London again, Berkeshire, London again, Bishopsgate and Marlow. He and Mary and Claire wandered in France and Germany in the summer of 1814; "in July 1816 he was with Mary, Claire and Byron in Switzerland; in March 1818 he left England for definitive exile in Italy. Yet there too he moved constantly, from Milan to Pisa, to Leghorn, to Bagni de Lucca, to Venice, to Rome (by 1819), to Naples, to Pisa, to Villa Magni at San Terenzo, near Lerici." Some of these moves seem to have been inspired by paranoia: "Many wanderings were blamed on government spies, creditors, his father's agents (his father, he was sure, ever seeking a pretext to imprison him), and men of vague but broad menace against him, some real, some imaginary."

And some of the restlessness came from a fear of being imprisoned by ties to a place.
If he were to settle anywhere he would sink into time, and the hours would close round him. Too dull and comfortable to struggle, he would not escape.... Time inhabited his poems as a figure wrapped in shroud-like wings, driving a chariot slowly forward. Shelley could neither push the chariot faster (though he sometimes longed to whip it till the wheels burned), nor get out of its way. Time weighed him down and tormented him. He longed to be suspended, unthinking and therefore unaware of the slow hours passing, in some spell of inspiration, or in the unknowable state that followed death.... If Shelley were to say, with Faust, to the passing moment, Verweile doch, du bist [so] schön! "Remain thou, thou art so beautiful!", he was consigning himself to death in life, as surely as if he were to live for ever within the same four walls. 

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