By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

6. Being Shelley, by Ann Wroe, pp. 147-181

Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself (Vintage)Part II: Water, 2. Reflection from "What he also sought in water or in mirrors ..." through end. 3. Escape through "... leaned down towards an embrace."
Reflections were also, in Shelley's Platonic idealism, a medium through which ultimate reality could be perceived. "The mind, Plato said, should be treated like an eye, guided gently from obscurity to light." For Shelley, the eye was also the window to the soul. He gazed deeply into Mary's eyes, and sketched images of eyes in his noteooks.
Eyes, he believed, became intricate from "the acquisition of knowledge and the cultivation of sentiment." Dreams, too, could be read there. In their "mazy depth of colour behind colour" he could lose himself with looking, as Narcissus did, at his own idealised image reflected in the mind of another.... In deepest thought, using the inner eye of his mind, he could sometimes begin to observe within himself the bright form of which Shelley, with his lined cheeks and greying hair, was only the mortal shadow.... Hence the hours spent musing by ponds and pools and, in female company, the uncomfortable intensity of his longing, blue-eyed stare. 
It was Southey, whom Shelley visited in 1811, who suggested he read Berkeley, who conceived of reality as "a construct of mind." He didn't go to the solipsistic extreme, but argued, "Mind, as far as we have any experience of its properties, and beyond that experience how vain is argument! cannot create, it can only perceive." He also posited a universal Mind, not a divinity to be worshiped but "a source from which his thoughts drew energy." This concept was reinforced by an Alpine epiphany in the summer of 1816 in which he "sensed a presence in the mountains" when he visited the glacier at Chamounix.
As he picnicked with Mary and Claire at the glacier's edge they could hear it creak and crack; they once saw, not far off, the thunderclap smoke and rubble of an avalanche it caused, bearing down into the valley "all the ruins of the mountains."... Three years later, in Prometheus Unbound, he made this the echo of all men's thoughts suddenly released from the ice.... The great mountain represented the secret law that governed though: solemn, inaccessible, transcendent. Mutability and chance could not come near it. Only mind could ponder it. In its remoteness it marked the last of the visible and natural causes men could see before ... they lost the thread of their understanding and reached, clumsily and blindly for the notion "God." 
Shelley crossed a bridge over the river Arve and saw the torrent below as an image of "his own thoughts, 'now dark -- now glittering,' and ceaselessly bursting and raving among the rocks." He wrote to Peacock of his "realisation that his existence and the mountain's were one in his mind. He had made the whole landscape his idea, his thought, and part of him. Mind became what it contemplated, and what he saw became himself." As Poet, "he could shape, colour, fill with meaning, invest with light and life." The human mind was a mirror of the vast sea of mind. "The notion of 'distinct individual minds, similar to that which is employed in now questioning its own nature,' was a delusion. He was simply an infinitesimal ripple in a Mind infinitely extensive."
In Dante's Convito, God dreamed man and the divine Intelligences made him, according to God's idea. But in Shelley's Queen Mab, man dreamed God. Y los sueños, sueños son. ... Others, standing in awe under the same Swiss sky, had bowed before the God who made the mountain. Shelley had been made aware of, and had tested, his own power. 
This concept of the power of mind informed his politics. "Perceptions, opinions and dispositions could be changed, not least by his own writing and incessant, urgent arguing.... Mind would triumph over matter, and the world could be transformed."
"You talk Utopia," said Byron shortly. Perhaps Shelley did; he knew that men did not dare this, that they did not even know their lack of daring, that "the good want power, but to weep barren tears," and that the revolution in France had failed precisely because its promoters had persisted in seeing the world in terms of oppression and revenge. But he talked Utopia because "some few, like we know who" saw it believed it, and knew it had to be shown forth to other minds. It could be built that way.
Shelley thought of his political writings as stones cast into the lake, the ripple made by the disturbance spreading outward. It was an image suggested by Godwin, who called truth "the pebble in the lake." "The Necessity of Atheism had been one such pebble, in Shelley's view." In November 1817, he wrote his Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte, in which he contrasted the widespread grief over the death of the young princess with the "indifference to the death of Liberty in England." Two years later, in Italy, he began work on A Philosophical View of Reform, but it was left unfinished and unpublished for a century. "Shelley crouched by the water with his mind full of spreading circles of light. But the pond, and England, slept again."

One problem is that Shelley had a short attention span: "His life seemed compounded of eddying ideas that begged to be heeded and followed. Sudden notions drove him to grab friends by the arm and tug them eastwards, westwards, sideways, into bread-shops and pawn-shops in the London streets." Trelawny said, "He overbore all opposition in those less self-willed than he was." In Hogg's view, "Shelley never fled towards, but escaped from whatever it was that moved him."

Increasingly, Shelley resorted to images of "free fall through nothingness, or water, or the illusory solidity of the body and the self." In 1820, he jumped into the Arno from the Ponte della Trinità in Florence, from which Trelawny, who had failed to teach him to swim, rescued him. Despite the horror of Harriet's drowning, he had convinced himself that he would drown calmly. In 1816, he had been sailing with Byron on Lake Geneva when they were caught in a sudden windstorm. Byron, a strong swimmer, "assured him he could save him, as long as he did not struggle. Shelley replied that he had no notion of being saved." And when Trelawny rescued him from the Arno, "Shelley was sorely disappointed that he had not left him there."

He took Jane Williams and her two small children out in a small boat in the Bay of Lerici in the spring of 1822 and fell oddly silent as the little coracle drifted far from shore. "Jane watched him as he sat, head bowed, motionless and wordless. His melancholy was terrifying." Finally he announced his interest in finding out what mysteries lay in the afterlife. Jane told him that she and the children would rather have dinner first, and when they got back to shore she "swore she would never go out in a boat with Shelley again."

He had persuaded himself that drowning "was a state much like sleeping."
He was confident ... that thought did not die. It might even become more influential once the thinker had gone. Books, paintings, sculptures, products of mind, survived, with immortality in them as long as men lived to admire them. ... Yet the question for Shelley was whether minds themselves persisted, and whether his own mind, with all its pulsings of thought, would dissolve as a billow in the ocean or go on. His reasoning self insisted that things beyond the grave could not be known. Men could believe, if they cared to, in eternal life; but in belief of that sort, the sort that priests demanded, the will was passive and the intellect suspended.... Nothing beyond visible phenomena could be subjected to rational analysis. It was a realm of phantoms and faith. The first he had outgrown, the second he rejected as poison. But looking into water -- water running deep and quiet, his own face looking back at him -- he sometimes felt he was on the edge of understanding, and leaned down towards an embrace.

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