By Charles Matthews

Friday, August 13, 2010

8. Being Shelley, by Ann Wroe, pp. 210-227

Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself (Vintage)Part III: Air, 1. The shadow from "The air Shelley moved through, in whatever guise ..." through end.
For Shelley, the air was spirit-haunted: "Some were genii of the wind, some spirits of growth and decay, some ... visualisations of physical forces in and below the atmosphere." He thought if he had complete solitude he could commune with these phantoms. "Walking back from these encounters, he would remind himself not to be surprised at his disappointment. ... The world was an illusion, and the true object of his love was never to be found there." He encountered two definitions of Love when he translated Plato's Symposium. One was the poet Agathon's concept of a spirit that enters the souls of men, "the divinity who creates peace among men, and calm upon the sea, the windless silence of storms, repose and sleep in sadness." But the other was, in his experience, perhaps more like what he experienced:
Diotima, a prophetess, explained to Socrates and the company a more subtle personification: a being who, lacking beauty himself, yearned and hunted for the beautiful unendingly. He was neither immortal, like Agathon's Love, nor mortal, but a mediator between those states, a "great daemon" moving like a messenger between gods and men. What he longed for constantly retreated from him; yet whatever webs were woven by the spirits of the air could be constructed, too, by him, binding the realms of Earth and Heaven together in a ceaseless mesh of desire.
It was this desire, this hunger that "drove his arguments, his writing, his journeys, his thoughts, reminding him of what he lacked, pestering him to find it, to the point of exhaustion.... 'I think,' he wrote ... to his friend John Gisborne, 'one is always in love with something or other.'" 

Shelley had been called "Ariel" at Oxford, and the nickname fit "his lightness, wildness and strange vanishings." The Tempest was his favorite Shakespeare play. He wanted to call his yacht Ariel, conceiving of it as "more an air-craft than a vessel of the sea. But mostly he kept that name for himself: 'quaint Ariel,' 'my bird,' as his master Prospero called him, the darting and sulking spirit of the air."

The identification of the breath with the soul was present in a Greek pun he found in Plato: "'Suck' and 'soul' (φυχην) were of similar sounds in Greek," so in a kiss the soul could be sucked away. "The message of several of Shelley's poems could be compressed to one imperative: Kiss me." He insisted that "almost no ideal figure of antiquity ... is to be found with closed lips," and "Mary insisted later that his lips should be parted in every portrait that was done of him."

He saw Nature as "a series of concealing veils in which he was caught fast. Reality lay behind or beyond them, through the 'woof,' or woven texture, of existence.... This woven world was also daubed with colour, like a painted stage-set for the play of life.... Beyond mere colour, rainbows glinted everywhere he looked.... In the margin of the first draft of 'To a Skylark' he wrote the word 'rainbow' almost pre-emptively, as if he planned to embellish, with ultramarine and crimson, the plain silver drops of the bird's song." But he regarded this colorfulness as deceptive:
He scorned himself for believing, like most poets, in "the false earth's inconstancy" and in the wiles of the spirits of the air who seemed to press its beauties on him. On his best days, he knew better:
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass
Stains the white radiance of eternity
Until Death tramples it to fragments -- 
Yet within those transitory things -- shifts of colour, perfume, changes of light -- lay intimations of the true essence of the world he observed. The deep red of a rose and its scent, sweetening and fading in almost visible clouds above it, hinted at the rose's soul, just as poetry was the sign of the highest condition of a man.... In Shelley's more materialist moods, matter could refine as far as this: atoms of colour, atms of thought. In his immaterialist thinking, the heaviest matter was so invaded by spirit as to dissolve and fly.... Keats begged him to aim for a more substantial verse, to "load every rift with ore." But Shelley's method was deliberate. In earthly existence, webs and veils were necessary both to catch reality and to hide it from weak-sighted mortal eyes. 
He had had an epiphany in Wales in 1811, a feeling of something passing over him that "was neither dusk nor night, whose cloak soothed him. It seemed to be gloom itself, death and decay, and his own cowed thoughts that dwelt on them. The dark had come from him."

But his quest was for the "'undivided joy' of lving, breathing and being." He found in sex a "timeless, oblivious lightness.... He once wrote, then crossed out, that the sexual act was or should be 'an imaginary point,' a moment when the body's substance was lost in its own ecstasy." But it was only momentary: "As always in the world of Mutability, Beauty touched him for a moment and then abandoned him."

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