By Charles Matthews

Thursday, August 12, 2010

7. Being Shelley, by Ann Wroe, pp. 182-210

Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself (Vintage)Part II: Water, 3. Escape from "Many of his Poet-journeys were inward..." through end. Part III: Air, 1. The shadow through "... a radiant light rests on men, and life is sweet."
Shelley made several journeys attempting to trace the source of streams and lakes, a quest that resembled his inward one:  "At some point thought, like water, disappeared underground, enticing him into the dark." He was fascinated with mazes, drawing them in his notebooks and exploring the maze-like ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, where he wrote Prometheus Unbound. His walks in woods and cities would often end up with him getting lost.

He loved to build boats, both toy ones and real, and in 1822 he designed a sailboat to explore the Bay of Spezia. As a joke, Byron, whose own boat was built in the same yard, had "the name Don Juan painted in large black letters on the mainsail." The attempts to wash the letters out left the sail dingy, and it had to be replaced so the boat could be the pure white Shelley wanted. It was refitted as well, becoming "swifter, slimmer and less stable.... Most remarkable and foolish was a gaff topsail, providing more surface to the wind than unskilled sailors could possibly manage. But that was the point of her."

Shelley was a careless sailor, too preoccupied with his thoughts and the books and notebooks he brought on board with him. "He took exercise in boats, he told Claire, 'to dissipate thought,' or in other words to stop time weighing on him." And he thought of boats as a means to escape from persecutors, such as the Lord Chancellor who had taken away his children by Harriet. He took his children out on boats even when they were small: "the sole memory his son Percy, who was two when [Shelley] died, preserved of him [was of] strong, cradling arms lifting him on board." He imagined his boats as birds: "Among his very last drafts of poetry Shelley drew a page of sleek prows, giving them wings."
In 1823 a Geneva boatman gave his views on Shelley. He remembered him stretched on the bottom of the boat "gazing at Heaven, where he would never enter." Mary had a similar memory of Shelley observing skies and clouds as he drifted on the river at Marlow. He floated in a light cocoon between the water and the air. Often the two were interchangeable. The sea was "Heaven's ever-changing shadow," the sky "the inverse deep," each mirroring the other. The air was eddying and liquid; birds dived in it, as fish in the sea; clouds became sunrise-tinted foam, and waves broke in shiverings of mist and light. Though Shelley could not cope in water, in air he imagined he could move like a swimmer, his "subtle spirit" gliding and turning in an element that could carry him.
He was fascinated by clouds, and particularly by their relationship to the earth: "They clung like thought itself to the tops of the woods, or trailed on the flanks of mountains." He was amazed to find the peaks of the Alps rising above the clouds: "his mountain summits were always 'aery,' 'aëreal,' 'floating' or 'íslanded' in the deep sea of the sky." He was intrigued by Humphry Davy's writings about the atom, which "pictured transparent atoms in tiny revolutions about their own axes and about each other, copying the motions of the universe. They were mostly empty, letting movement in." He echoed this in Prometheus Unbound, and thought of his body as "the model of the moving universe; his substance, which seemed so solid, was as porous and open to influence the wide pulsating air."

He also thought of himself, the Poet, as a chameleon, taking on the colors of his surroundings. "His chameleon nature also sensitised him to the least sign of good or evil in the world. Friends saw that sensitivity in Shelley's own change of colour, from the pallor of his 'languid' days to the furious blushing when he was forced to be sociable or was caught out in lying." The chameleon Shelley was manifested in his personality. Sometimes he took on the manner of "Socrates, his hero, ... careless of clothes and shoes, happy on a diet of bread and vegetables, and, most of all, suddenly losing himself, so wrapped in thought that he took no stock of where he was." He was was undependable:
Summoned to appointments, he did not come. Called to dinner, he was out in the woods or by water, writing. He told Trelawny, rather sharply, that the Muses who lived in the air did not dine. Bird-like, he picked at any food he found -- wild strawberries, "milky" pine-nuts shaken in the grass -- and winged his way back with the birds as evening fell.
He was notoriously difficult to capture in portraits, though many of his friends tried. "All these friends presumed him uncatchable because he was not of the earth." Some of them, "only half joking, presumed Shelley could fly." They compared him to Oberon or Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream, or to aliens from outer space. "Keats -- who encountered him at Hunt's in Hampstead, but foudn him too overbearing -- once remarked, with slight jealousy, that Shelley probably never sat with his wings furled for six months together."

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