By Charles Matthews

Monday, August 9, 2010

4. Being Shelley, by Ann Wroe, pp. 93-117

Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself (Vintage)Part I: Earth, 3. Masks from "In December 1812 Shelley addressed ... " through end. Part II: Water, 1. Immersion through "... no wish to keep his body floating."
When Mary wrote Frankenstein, Shelley "found brotherhood with the gruesome monster Frankenstein had created, the would-be benefactor of mankind who was reviled and driven away." Although he regarded hatred as "tyrant behaviour," he was capable of proclaiming anathema on his enemies, including "Lord Eldon, the Chancellor who in 1817, citing Shelley's immorality, had removed his children by Harriet and placed them with sober church-going folk." He relished images of horror, and his nightmares included eyes that appeared in place of nipples on women's breasts. Hell "was a city much like London, 'a populous and a smoky city.'"

He grew fond of flaunting his atheism. "His furious, public break with Christianity came at seventeen, when the religious squeamishness of Harriet Grove's parents put an end to his 'engagement' to her.... In January 1811, back at Field Place from Oxford for the holidays, he tried to persuade his father that Christ had never existed, satisfactorily shocking him." But his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism, which got him expelled from Oxford, was "a slim production politely and reasonably asking for better proofs of God's existence than had been provided so far." Not only was kicked out of the university for it, but his father barred him from returning to Field Place for fear that he would corrupt his sisters.
On a spare leaf of paper, around 1819, he began to sketch out what he meant by atheism. The Greek word atheos meant impious, and was a term of reproach. Yet he himself did not deny "whatever power, and mystery, and might may lie behind the universe." He simply disagreed that this great system of things was arranged by one intellectual being"; to rebuke him for that, or for impiety, was "insolence" and "intolerable." 
But he still signed visitors' books with "P.B. Shelley, Atheist, Democrat, Philanthropist," although he did so in Greek. Byron dubbed him "the Snake," and Shelley liked it so much he adapted it as one of his personae.

"Shelley sought water always. [Edward] Trelawny called it a mania with him, and Hogg attributed all his restlessness to the need to see streams and green banks, or hear waterfalls." Water became for him a symbol of "the mutable and eternal in constant tension." As he said of a waterfall near Spoleto, "The very imagination is bewildered in it." One of his favorite passages in Dante's Paradiso described a stream so pure that water on Earth would seem "turbid" in comparison. "Like Dante, he pursued clear running water as the distillation of wisdom, slaking a thirst that was spiritual as much as physical in the desert of the world."
More than a poet's interest bred Shelley's affinity with water. Scientifically its suppleness delighted him: its molecules spreading out, as old Dr Walker had described it in lectures at Eton, and its parts sliding smoothly over each other as its purity increased. Water marked the first escape from densest matter, slippery and quick and translucent.... "It is a faculty of the human mind," [Thomas] Paine said [in Rights of Man] -- in a phrase Shelley took and repeated and adopted -- "to become what it contemplates, and to act in unison with its object." In the ceaseless braiding and unfurling of mountain torrents Shelley was both the falling force, forever changing yet forever the same, and the bubbles that were battered and broken in the surf, constantly remade.
He liked to plunge his face into cold water several times a day, and at Villa Magni he spent much of his time in the sea, letting "the salt water dry on him, disdaining combs and towels." Once, when a dinner party was being held at the villa, "Shelley came in from a ducking, naked. Sea water trickled down his nose, and there was seaweed in his hair. He smelt of brine." A maid tried to screen him from the guests but "he drew himself up beside a lady's chair" and "launched his own defence, explaining loudly that he had to go to his room to fetch his clothes. Water running down him formed a puddle on the floor; the lady averted her eyes."

The madman who is one of his personae in Julian and Maddalo is also described as a sea-creature and a weeper of "dizzying, scalding tears." Shelly too could be found "wild with weeping," a state that he called "inexplicably pleasing." He "sometimes laughed until he cried. Water as delight, water as tears, tears as 'sweet medicine and relief' all swelled in Shelley's head.

And yet, fatally, "he could not swim." Trelawny tried to teach him, but Shelley sank to the bottom.
Not for the last time, Trelawny fished him out. He spluttered and jerked on the bank, where in the water he had been still, calm, as if asleep. Trelawny thought his spine was curved the wrong way; if he could only unbend it, and turn on his back as he rose to the air, he could swim perfectly well. He failed to bear in mind that Shelley might have no wish to keep his body floating.

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