By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

5. Being Shelley, by Ann Wroe, pp. 117-147

Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself (Vintage)Part II: Water, 1. Immersion from "Water could not be counted his friend...." through end. 2. Reflection through "... Drängt immer fremd und fremder stoff sich an."
He disliked some forms of water, such as "The loathed baptismal fluid." And "The English rain, whenever it fell, turned him aguish, bilious and weak.... In his poems, rain fell bleakly over cities ruled by tyrants: sullen, rotting, poisoned rain." But he fancied himself invulnerable to water, like the Wandering Jew, who could not drown. He saw himself as like the tides, controlled by the moon, and he symbolized Mary as the moon: "In the early summer of 1814, when his passion for Mary had first erupted and he was threatening suicide if he could not have her, it was she -- so he claimed -- who was exerting influence on him, her passive lover. His mind without her, he told her later, was 'dead & cold as the dark midnight river when the moon is down.'" Later, it was Jane Williams whom he compared to the moon. He also likened orgasmic ecstasy to drowning:
Ecstasy, for him, was a condition of dissolution. "To sink and die" was a favourite phrase, commingling death and love as consummation to be longed for. He would expire in the deep like a lover subsiding with the spasms of the sexual act, "the quick dying gasps / Of the life meeting." 
He was fascinated by the undersea world, which was silent and filled with wonders. It "was also the realm of dreams." Shelley slept erratically, sometimes seeming to resent and resist sleep, though it "brought a disconnect between body and mind, and mind and spirit, that ceaselessly interested him." There are three recorded instances of his walking in his sleep. He tried to keep a record of his dreams, and once found himself terrified when he encountered a landscape that he thought he had seen before in a dream. He read with great fascination Calderón's La vida es sueño.
Was sleep a form of death, or a deeper form of waking life? Was life death, at least of the spirit? Was death a form of sleep in which, in Hamlet's words, "what dreams may come ... Must give us pause"? Or was it like the slumber of a baby, which "in the dim newness of its being feels / The impulses of sublunary things"? In Queen Mab Shelley called Death Sleep's brother, and described the quiescent body of Ianthe as though either Sleep or Death had embraced her, leaving her state indeterminate.
He believed in ghosts, or rather that he had seen them, and he regarded "all tyrannised notions of government, religion and God as clouds of phantoms, or bats, or Spenser's swarming flies, continually forming and fluttering around men's heads." In the spring of 1822, he saw what he believed to be the ghost of Allegra, the daughter of Byron and Claire Clairmont, a few weeks after she had died at the age of five. "She appeared to him as a naked child rising from the sea foam in the moonlight." And several times he encountered his Doppelgänger.

Water also provided a reflective surface, and as such "had an almost hypnotic attraction for him." The flower narcissus, named for the Greek who drowned admiring his image in the water, was also the garland for the Poet in Alastor.
Reflection was almost always more beautiful than life. Sunset on the Jura snowfields looked far lovelier to Shelley in the lake that lay below; at noon, "a more heavenly and serener light" than daylight was reflected from the "icy mirrors" of the mountain peaks.... The ripples of the surface current could not change this scene. It became for Shelley an image of timelessness and purity, the reverse of human life.
The quest for purity, for "unchanging perfect forms: Beauty, Justice, Truth, Equality," led him to the Greeks. "For him they were "those divine people who, in their very errors, are the mirrors, as it were, in which all that is delicate and graceful contemplates itself." He studied Greek statuary in this quest "for unity, harmony and simplicity, for light and life."

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