By Charles Matthews

Saturday, August 14, 2010

9. Being Shelley, by Ann Wroe, pp. 231-254

Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself (Vintage)Part III: Air, 2. The song
The English poet loved the Italian blue sky, and "depended on it, he said, for life. In 1820 he wanted Keats too, who was dying, to see that sky and live." It reinforced in him a sense of some limitless force: "He had called it Necessity, the Soul of the Universe, all-sufficing Power, the Spirit of Nature." It was also Love, but he was conscious of how that word had been "'too often profaned,' he told Jane [Williams], 'for me to profane it again.'" But he was also conscious of how alien human beings had become from the workings of nature: "The renewal of the world in spring, though it stirred his blood, could neither ease his sadness nor lighten his burdens for long. Love did not work in him that way." But he continued his quest for that ecstatic sense of connection with "the Spirit of Beauty" that he had experienced as a boy.

In his notebooks he often sketched trees, "sometimes rooted firmly in the earth, sometimes dangerously poised at the edges of cliffs whose stones had begun to give. But most often he drew swags and snatches of foliage adrift in the air." He sought out what he called "pavilions," places where the branches of trees joined together over his head, and "green lawns among the trees, soft-carpeted with moss and strewn almost too formally with tiny, brightly coloured flowers." He listened to the song the trees sang as the wind passed through their branches. "The Spirit of Beauty, the constant object of his love and his pursuit, he had compared not to music but to 'memory of music fled': a melody heard as a child but now fading, even as far as silence."
The impact of song on him was often unbearable in its physical intensity. When women played, they played him; when they sang, they stole his own breath from him. He was in love with them, ached with wanting them, whatever his reasonings otherwise. The draft of "To Constantia," written as Claire sang at the piano in 1817, was among the most desperate and illegible he ever produced. The words lost, dissolved, consumed, drunk were tried and deleted again and again, blotted, smudged.
In composition, he often began with the rhythm: "He found the metre, then the rhymes, leaving gaps, as was necessary, when words would not come.... When a rhythm caught him he would try it in the notebook for a line or two, to see if he liked it and how well it would carry words.... With rhythm came harmony -- rhythm's spirit, as Shelley termed it -- and with harmony, meaning and power. Sound itself carried sense."
Music, rather than words, made him a Poet. Indeed metrical language, Shelley thought, worked better even than music to express "the actions and passions of our internal being," and was "susceptible of more various and delicate combinations than colour, form or motion." Poetry had no intermediary, no instrument or canvas or sculptor's marble, but was sheer thought modified only by arrangement "by that imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man." 
He made lists of words he liked and disliked. "Among his favourites were 'glimmering,' 'murmuring,' and 'scattering,' words of half-seeing, half-hearing and half-apprehension: his human life."

In June 1820, he and Mary were walking through fields near Leghorn when they heard the songs of the skylarks soaring above them. He had previously translated the Homeric Hymn to Mercury, using words like "unpremeditated," "unconquerable," ""joyous and wild and wanton," "sweet as Love," and the words and phrases came back to him as he wrote his piece in praise of the skylark that he could hear but not see above him: "the bird had vanished in its singing, mounting so high that it became all music, impossible to see." He posited a kinship with the bird, which "was more confident in its song than in its flying. It mounted and fell, mounted and fell, struggling to shake off the murky pull of Earth." He believed his own verse to be "unpremeditated art," that it "had nothing to do with consciousness or will or 'the active powers of the mind.'" in a famous simile he likened "the mind in creation" to "a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness."

Plato had written of the madness of poets, enchanted by nymphs and dryads or possessed by the Muses. Shelley compared writing poetry to taking laudanum.
Poets naturally knew this burst of feeling, crazily coalescing into words. Fools knew it too, and Shelley instinctively sympathised with them: Calderón's Pasquin, with his disquieting tales of blindness and masks; Shakespeare's Feste from Twelfth Night, with his sad song of rain; Edgar's Poor Tom from Lear, shadowed like Shelley by the "foul fiend"; and his own fool, Archy, in his unfinished play Charles the First. Archy-Shelley saw a rainbow once, hanging over London and its shops, "like a bridge of congregated lightnings pierced by the masonry of heaven." But at the end of the rainbow he found the carcass of a dead ass, rotten rags and broken dishes: earth-rubbish, though his eyes were still full of gold and purple light. 
But however spontaneous the inspiration of poetry may be, the agony of composition still remained. His manuscripts are full of false starts and revisions.

No comments:

Post a Comment