By Charles Matthews

Sunday, August 8, 2010

3. Being Shelley, by Ann Wroe, pp. 57-93

Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself (Vintage)Part I: Earth, 2. Chains from "On the heights of Bisham Wood ... " to end; 3. Masks through "... Sick to death of the name of self / Killing / Self."
Shelley was fascinated with the then-new science of geology, and filled his notes with drawings of geological formations, images of the antiquity of the Earth. As a student of the classics, "he mourned ... the disappearance of the Athenian democracy. He never saw Greece but observed, in 1818 in Pompeii, the ruins of what he stressed had been a Greek city." The geological record and the ruins of ancient civilizations reminded him that "Everything on the Earth became the Earth" and that "All kings became nothing," sentiments articulated in the sonnet "Ozymandias" which was "written in an hour or so in 1817."

In France in 1814 he came across a village devastated by the war that he denounced as "liberticide" that had been "unleashed against the French to reverse their revolution." As an Englishman he was upset when his own government "joined forces in 1815 with 'the seven bloodhounds' ... -- Austria, Bourbon France, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, Spain and Sweden -- to suppress reform in Europe and to preserve the slave trade." He believed that Earth itself "breathed and lived and cried out at injustice.... In Shelley's view, great traumas -- none greater than the French Revolution, descending to the Terror, then to Napoleon's imperium, then in 1815 to the Bourbon restoration -- had their birth in physical upheaval as much as in the minds of men." He did not see human progress as a steady forward movement: "Earthly existence meant continual frustration. Centuries and generations might pass while the cycles of human progress edged forward, then regressed, as they had done in France."
He was not a child of the French Revolution so much as of its awful aftermath, when the rule of the people had descended to an orgy of reprisals and blood. He was deeply disappointed by this "sanguine eagerness," but not surprised: men suddenly released from the slavery that had made them "brutal and torpid and ferocious" could not immediately be "liberal-minded" and "forbearing." He refused to despair, as so many did; the pessimistic weariness of the revolutionary generation, Wordsworth, Coleridge, South and the rest, angered and disgusted him. Shelley insisted on hope as a matter of principle. Yet it was qualified by the fear that the people, once given power, would take revenge, bringing more horrors.
"Hope" may have kept him going, but he also entertained thoughts of suicide, especially after those of Harriet and Fanny Godwin, Mary's half-sister, who killed herself in October 1816, age twenty-two. Fanny had taken an overdose of laudanum, a drug with which Shelley was familiar since his days at Eton and to which he became addicted. In 1818, he and Mary suffered the loss of their daughter, Clara, at eighteen months, from typhoid fever. William, three and a half, died from worms and malaria the next summer. "Mary was devastated by the deaths of her children. Shelley's far quicker recovery deepened the estrangement between them. Yet the horror, for him, was not death. True horror was to be condemned, like the Wandering Jew, to eternal earthly life, forever dragging that worthless body, never able to rest."

His poems are full of flowers, symbols of "beauty and mortality combined," and his friends took them as emblems of Shelley himself. "Hogg saw him as 'a climber, a creeper, an elegant, beautiful, odoriferous parasitical plan' that needed tying to a from stick, such as himself." Plants and flowers also provided him an image of sexual love: "Trees interlaced, tendrils wound about each other, petals opened to the touch of the sun and their perfume fled away." And for the destructive side of passion as well: "He pictured it in his poems as bitter-sweet nightshade, bright-berried but deadly, or poisonous white bryony garlanding a cave for erotic and tormented dreams." Though he admitted, in Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks, "delicately and offhandedly, to routine masturbation" and drew a detailed picture of his erect penis on a page on which he had made some calculations, he sometimes expressed a disgust with the mechanisms of sex. The madman who is one of his personae in Julian and Maddalo wishes "That, like some maniac monk, I had torn out / The nerves of manhood by their bleeding root / With mine own quivering fingers."

The flowers he singled out as his personal images were pansies and Mimosa pudica. The latter provided a symbol for himself in "The Sensitive Plant." It was "hermaphrodite, with male and female flowers sharing a stem and feathery leaves that folded at a shadow, or a touch. Shelley-like, it grew alone. It was almost constantly aroused, quivering with desire 'from the leaf to the root,' yet could never find love to match the love it felt." As for pansies, he wanted them on his grave, which was to have no tombstone with his name on it -- a name that he allowed to be printed on "only eight of his 14 poetical publications." He said of his "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" that "it deserves a better fate than the being linked with so stigmatised & unpopular a name ... as mine." He also "obscured when poems were written" and even his letters were sent out under various names. Sometimes this was to prevent prosecution for blasphemy, but others, such as the ones he wrote to Claire Clairmont, were to avoid arousing Mary's suspicions. Some of them dealt with a baby, Elena Adelaide Shelley, whose mother may have been either Claire or the Shelleys' maid, Elise. He paid for Elena's care for the few months of her life.

He also had nicknames: "Byron called him Shiloh, after the seraph-man a crazed prophetess, Joanna Southcott, believed she would give birth to. Hunt and Peacock called him "the Conchoid," which was a shy, spiky creature that disappeared into its shell. At school he had been "Don Quixote" because of "his tendency ... to catapult himself into fights." And Emilia Viviani, when she heard his name was Percy, thought it was Persi, meaning "lost," which he liked.

Like the Poet in Alastor, he craved solitude, or at least a minimum of company. "Two women and himself, loosening the monopoly of 'the society of one' (no matter what the cost in jealousy and unhappiness) was his ideal all through his life." But he also abhorred selfishness.
Self-interest was the essence of the world he moved in. Shelley traced to it every child crying with hunger, every wasted labourer, the pollution of cities, the filthy opulence of monarchs, war and desolation.... Self-interest made men acquiesce in tyranny, bringing their evils wilfully upon themselves, enthroning both 'the oppression and the oppressor.'" 
On the other hand, self-esteem, gained through self-knowledge, was, along with Love and Hope, one of his three cardinal virtues. Empathy was also a virtue:
Shelley's own Poet's life put him deeply, or so it seemed, in the selves and the miseries of others. He ached with the aged, crippled woman gathering firewood to supplement parish charity; he throbbed with the pride of a freedom fighter, wrapped in his gore-soaked flag, dying on the field in Mexico.
But he also expected the same imaginative sympathy to be extended to himself: "If he extended his human sympathy to others he desperately and urgently wanted it returned, especially by the women with whom he had chosen to live." And he was as susceptible to egotism as anyone.
He was glad, he told a friend in 1821, that he had not known the details of Keats's death when he composed Adonais for him, or 'the enthusiasm of the imagination would have been overpowered by sentiment.' As it was, the dead poet, pale and beautiful as a 'broken lily,' tears trembling 'on the silken fringe of his faint eyes,' was also Shelley in death, heartbreakingly sentimentalized.

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