Wednesday, August 29, 2007
by Adam Kirsch August 27, 2007
Shelley’s radical ideals were inseparable from a kind of moral arrogance.
Radicals In the summer of 1812, as the half million soldiers of the Grande Armée marched across Europe in Napoleon’s doomed Russian campaign, a nineteen-year-old in the Devonshire village of Lynmouth set out to change the history of Europe all on his own. Anyone strolling along the beach at Lynmouth that summer, around sunrise or sunset, might have caught him at his epochal work, which to the casual eye would have looked like a boy’s game. He knelt down by the water and launched toy boats, waterproofed with wax and equipped with masts made of sticks, into the Bristol Channel; he launched handmade hot-air balloons, their silk canopies inflating and floating away toward Wales and Ireland. To Percy Bysshe Shelley, however, these fragile devices were as dangerous to the established order as Napoleon’s grapeshot. Each one contained a copy of “A Declaration of Rights,” a manifesto that set out Shelley’s radical creed in thirty-one propositions. “Government has no rights,” he announced. “All have a right to an equal share in the benefits and burdens of government”; “A Christian, a Deist, a Turk, and a Jew, have equal rights.” It was Shelley’s version of the declarations that had launched the American and French Revolutions, and he saw no reason that his work—though the product of a single ardent mind, instead of a Congress or an Assembly—shouldn’t have equally momentous results. Weren’t poets, as he would write almost a decade later, the unacknowledged legislators of the world? The image of Shelley entrusting his words to the elements captures both the admirable and the questionable sides of his tumultuous career. Shelley’s certainty that his messages would reach their rightful audience, despite the odds, expresses his faith that justice is radiantly simple. He wrote the “Declaration” in the same spirit, sure that if the world could be made to see the truth, as clearly and passionately as he saw it, all selfishness would disappear. Like Jesus, whom he blasphemed, admired, and at times resembled, Shelley would take no thought for the morrow. He stood to lose personally from the social revolution he preached. As the son of a country squire, he was due to inherit an estate, a title, and a fortune; but he didn’t hesitate to renounce them all for the sake of his ideals. During his first year at Oxford, he published an essay, “The Necessity of Atheism,” and sent it to the university’s leading officials, practically begging to be expelled. When he was, to the horror of his well-meaning, conventional father, Shelley made things worse by eloping with a sixteen-year-old girl, Harriet Westbrook. Cut off by his family, he was reduced to scraping by on small loans, but he remained impulsively generous to friends, and even to strangers. Unlike the average radical, then, Shelley didn’t just challenge social taboos; he openly violated them, living his personal life in accordance with unpopular principles like equality, women’s rights, and free love. As a result, he became so reviled in England that he had to emigrate, spending the last four years of his life in Italy. Such unworldliness helps to explain why Shelley’s closest friends remembered him as a kind of saint or angel. To Thomas Hogg, whom he met at Oxford, “he was a pure spirit, in the Divine likeness of the Archangel Gabriel; the peace-breathing, lily-bearing Annunciator.” At the same time, there is something exasperating, or worse, about the idea of Shelley trying to change the world with toy balloons. Throughout his adulthood, he considered himself a serious radical—even claiming, “I consider poetry very subordinate to moral and political science”—whose purpose in life was to advance the cause of liberty in England and Europe. But he consistently displayed an indifference to reality which went deeper than his propaganda techniques. Shelley’s ineffectiveness as an agitator we could dismiss with a smile. But his political beliefs demonstrated the same contempt of consequence, the same elevation of pure motive over practical effects, the same lack of self-awareness. These qualities helped to make Shelley a genuinely illiberal thinker, whose politics verged at times on the totalitarian. Because his poetry is deeply political, it is impossible to separate Shelley’s abstract ideas from his sensuous, passionate poems. And because he believed, as much as any revolutionary of the nineteen-sixties, that the personal is political, it is equally hard to separate his art from his biography. That is why, during his lifetime and ever since, Shelley’s private life, his politics, and his poetry have presented readers with a single, inextricable problem. “And did you once see Shelley plain?” Robert Browning wrote; the line is famous because nobody ever has. “Being Shelley” (Pantheon; $30), by Ann Wroe, does not even try to see Shelley plain. Instead, as the title suggests, Wroe tries to see as Shelley saw—to inhabit his consciousness and capture its every movement. This is, as she frankly says, “an experiment,” and any reader who opens the book expecting a conventional biography is in for a surprise. While Wroe offers some basic biographical information and quotes copiously from Shelley’s writings, she does not tell a chronological story or analyze individual poems. Instead, like an alchemist at the cauldron, she volatilizes Shelley’s life and work into their basic elements: her book is divided into sections titled “Earth,” “Water,” “Air,” and “Fire.” The book is more an act of mediumship than a work of biography, and it depends for its success on the fineness of Wroe’s intuition and the intensity of her identification with her subject. Fortunately, Wroe seems to have Shelley’s entire life and work spread out before her in a mental map, allowing her to draw some unexpected connections. Shelley’s language is kneaded so deeply into her own that some familiarity with the poems is required to recognize all her allusions. “If others thought him ‘a blot,’ he was a bright one,” she writes, subtly quoting Shelley’s sonnet “Lift not the painted veil”: “through the unheeding many he did move, / A splendour among shadows, a bright blot / Upon this gloomy scene.” At times, Wroe shifts from narrative to fuguelike lists of images. “Water could not be counted his friend,” begins one such catalogue, which goes on to show us Shelley being baptized in 1792, getting caught in a rainstorm in 1814, and sketching raindrops in his notebooks, which are themselves smeared with seawater. All the while, Wroe, who assumes some prior knowledge of the Shelley myth, also means us to remember how the poet died. In 1822, just a month before his thirtieth birthday, he drowned off the Italian coast near Livorno, having insisted on launching a small boat even though a storm was brewing. Wroe’s free-associative method would not get very far with most poets, perhaps. But it is well suited to Shelley, whose poems return again and again, as it were compulsively, to a few primal scenes and images. A boat travelling down a river under a canopy of leaves; a deep, narrow cave in the mountains or by the water; the play of light on the sea—these images seem to bubble up into Shelley’s consciousness from some mysterious elsewhere, much as the landscape of “Kubla Khan” came to Coleridge in a dream. To W. B. Yeats, Shelley’s use of such archetypes was proof that he had access to “some great memory that renews the world and men’s thoughts age after age.” Shelley, Yeats was sure, was “what people call ‘psychic.’ ” The whole repertoire of Shelley’s archetypes, psychic or otherwise, is on display in “Alastor,” his first major poem, written in 1815, when he was twenty-three. It recounts the visionary quest of a Poet—with an unapologetic capital “P”—who travels the East in search of a woman he once saw in a dream. This “veiled maid” is an embodiment of “Knowledge and truth and virtue.” But it is characteristic of Shelley that she is also a sexual being, and that her visitation takes the form of what we would now call a wet dream. The movement of Shelley’s verse imitates the rhythm of orgasm in a way that still feels startling: He reared his shuddering limbs, and quelled His gasping breath, and spread his arms to meet Her panting bosom; . . . she drew back a while, Then, yielding to the irresistible joy, With frantic gesture and short breathless cry Folded his frame in her dissolving arms. When the Poet wakes up, he realizes that he cannot live without seeing the maid again. But this need to pursue “Beyond the realms of dream that fleeting shade,” to find the Infinite in the real world, seals his doom. The rest of the poem is a deliquescent series of landscapes and waterscapes, as the Poet pilots his “little shallop” down a river that is nominally in the Caucasus. But no map can point the way to “the shifting domes of sheeted spray / That canopied his path o’er the waste deep,” the “pyramids / Of the tall cedar overarching,” the “Islanded seas, blue mountains, mighty streams, / Dim tracts and vast, robed in the lustrous gloom / Of leaden-coloured even,” which the Poet discovers. “Thou imagest my life,” he declares to the river, and the scenes he passes through “Have each their type in me.” Inevitably, this passage through the landscape of his mind can end only in death. Shelley’s dreamlike language and sensuous imagery made him one of the favorite poets of the prudish Victorian age, once his sexual radicalism had receded into legend. But this popularity was founded principally on such short lyrics as “To a Skylark” or “Mont Blanc,” whose descriptions of nature can be more easily detached from politics. Today, it is Shelley’s longer, stranger, more aggressively philosophical poems—some of them flawed and incomplete—that seem to represent the core of his achievement. During the poet’s Italian sojourn, masterpieces came in a steady stream. In four years, he produced the mythic drama “Prometheus Unbound,” which began as a translation of Aeschylus and became an apocalyptic allegory of revolution; “The Cenci,” an homage to the Jacobean drama, in which a father’s rape of his daughter becomes a symbol of patriarchal tyranny; “Adonais,” an ode on the death of Keats, which turns the poet into a martyr, slain by an unfeeling world; “Hellas,” a piece of propaganda for the Greek revolution against the Turks; and “The Masque of Anarchy,” a joyous libel of England’s ruling statesmen. As Shelley got older, his political vision grew broader and deeper, until the revolution he imagined was less a change of regime than a renovation of humanity itself. And this far more radical dream, nearly religious in its scope and intensity, is at the heart of his greatest poems. Shelley’s uncanny power lies in his gift for projecting his deepest fears and longings onto a hallucinatory cosmos. In his highest and most Shelleyan moments, the suggestive richness of his language, along with his ecstatic rhythms, allows him to abolish the distinction between himself and the world. In his essay “A Defence of Poetry,” when he claims and possibly believes that he is describing the effect of Bacon’s prose, he is actually talking about his own verse: “it is a strain which distends and then bursts the circumference of the hearer’s mind and pours itself forth together with it into the universal element with which it has perpetual sympathy.” That bursting and pouring reaches its highest pitch in “Ode to the West Wind.” Wroe makes much use of Shelley’s notebooks, which are preserved at Oxford and the Huntington Library, to evoke his inner world. Sometimes her interpretations of the poet’s drafts and doodles feel arbitrary, or else overdetermined, as when she sees his handwriting, in a passage about weeping, as “digging and jerking as if in paroxysms of tears.” But she finds something genuinely revelatory in the drafts of the “Ode,” which Shelley wrote on the afternoon of October 25, 1819, in a wood near the Arno in Florence. In trying to define the exact relation between himself and the wind—which he imagines as the “Destroyer and Preserver” of the universe—Shelley made several false starts. “Be thy,” “Be thou through,” “in me,” “to the,” he writes, crossing out the words each time. Finally, he lights on the famous, thrilling lines: “Be thou, spirit fierce, / My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!” No prepositions can separate the poet from the world: the two must be not just identified but identical. That is the impossible ambition of Shelley’s poetry, which at moments he seems to make possible through the power of his language. Yet it is also a Luciferian ambition, which aims to violate some essential order of the world and of the human mind. “He overleaps the bounds,” Shelley writes of the Poet in “Alastor,” and his own poetry lives in a perpetual overreaching. He was well aware that this could be considered a species of pride, and he took a mischievous pleasure in identifying himself with the great villain of pride in English literature, Milton’s Satan. The last line of his “Declaration of Rights” reads, “Awake!—arise!—or be for ever fallen”; there is no attribution, but Shelley hoped that his audience would recognize the words with which Satan rallies the fallen angels in the first book of “Paradise Lost.” In “Julian and Maddalo,” Shelley portrays himself and Lord Byron—thinly disguised as the title characters—in conversation, “forlorn, / Yet pleasing such as once, so poets tell, / The devils held within the dales of Hell, / Concerning God, freewill and destiny.” He even wrote an “Essay on the Devil and Devils,” in which he argued that “Milton’s Devil as a moral being” was “far superior to his God.” Wroe tries to explain Shelley’s interest in the Devil, and in all kinds of demons and ghosts, by invoking another of her book’s many avatars, “Monster-Shelley”—the side of him that enjoyed reading tales of horror, and liked to scare himself and other people with hideous visions. She even suggests that his vaunted atheism was just another kind of thrill-seeking: “As a devil-figure he was interesting, but not uncommon. He could do much worse, scaring the custom-bound much more thoroughly. Monster-Shelley therefore took the title ‘Atheist’ and blazoned it on his forehead.” This assumption doesn’t do justice to the earnestness and importance of Shelley’s radical commitments—although it is true that there was an element of performance in his atheism, especially at first. His letters just before he was expelled from Oxford, a martyr to the atheist creed, are filled with Voltairean bravado: “Oh! how I wish I were the avenger!—that it were mine to crush the demon; to hurl him to his native hell, never to rise again, and thus to establish for ever perfect and universal toleration.” The sentence is comic in its tonal paradox—the prophet of toleration thundering like a Spanish Inquisitor—and doubly so thanks to Shelley’s failure to recognize the comedy. To Matthew Arnold, indeed, it was this “utter deficiency in humor” that was Shelley’s “disastrous want and weakness.” Arnold did not simply mean that Shelley couldn’t tell a joke but, more fundamentally, that he could not step outside himself and look impartially at his own weaknesses, limitations, and failures. Like many adolescents, but few adults, he did not really believe that he had any. To his contemporaries, the signal example of Shelley’s moral arrogance was his treatment of his first wife. When Harriet Westbrook, in rebellion against her father and her school, begged Shelley to rescue her, it was the kind of cause that he found hard to resist. He agreed to elope with a girl he had never considered more than a friend. “If I know anything about love, I am not in love,” he had written just weeks before the marriage. He loved the idea of getting married even less: “A kind of ineffable, sickening disgust seizes my mind when I think of this most despotic, most unrequired fetter.” But he recognized that living together out of wedlock would hurt Harriet’s reputation much more than his own, and he agreed to go through with the ceremony. Things worked well enough for two and a half years, as Shelley enlisted Harriet in his political activities and taught her to parrot his catchphrases. She helped to distribute his youthful tracts but seems to have regarded the activity as little more than a lark. “We throw them out of the window and give them to men that we pass in the streets; for myself I am ready to die of laughter when it is done and Percy looks so grave,” she wrote in a letter. They had already started to grow apart when, in the summer of 1814, Shelley fell in love with Mary Godwin. Mary was then sixteen, the same age that Harriet had been when Shelley married her, and she had intellectual gifts that Harriet could never match. Just as important was her intellectual pedigree: she was the daughter of William Godwin, a radical thinker whom Shelley worshipped, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the crusader for women’s rights. Add the fact that Mary was instantly smitten with Shelley—it seems that they had sex for the first time by her mother’s grave, to mark their spiritual union—and Harriet never really had a chance. The lovers ran off to Europe, taking with them Mary’s half sister, Jane Clairmont. Harriet, pregnant with Shelley’s second child, was left behind to face scandal and ostracism. Today, it is hardly tempting to add to the chorus of moral indignation that pursued Shelley across Europe and beyond the grave. To marry someone you do not love, and then leave her for someone you do, does not look like a crime under our more liberal sexual dispensation. The truly disturbing aspect of Shelley’s behavior was his self-justifying refusal to acknowledge Harriet’s distress. According to his free-love principles, marriage should not be a permanent, exclusive arrangement; for a man to love different women at different times (and vice versa) was only natural. A heart that loved only one object would build, he wrote in “Epipsychidion,” “a sepulchre for its eternity.” And, because he was sure that his principles were correct, he could not help deducing that his actions were justified. With complete sincerity, he invited Harriet to come to Switzerland and live with him as his sister, while Mary would take over the role of wife. Then Shelley explained that he himself—the man who had just abandoned her—was Harriet’s one “firm and constant friend,” the only person in the world “by whom your feelings will never wilfully be injured. From none can you expect this but me—all else are either unfeeling or selfish.” The inhumanity of Shelley’s attitude was made even clearer a year and a half later, when Harriet—cut off from her husband, raising Shelley’s two children, and pregnant by another man—drowned herself in the Serpentine, in London. Shelley, again, knew that it could not be his fault. “Everything tends to prove,” he wrote to Mary after hearing the news, “that beyond the shock of so hideous a catastrophe having fallen on a human being once so nearly connected with me, there would in any case have been little to regret.” It is not entirely clear whether the thing that Shelley does not regret is Harriet’s death or merely his own conduct, but the words are chilling. In the months that followed, Shelley embarked on a highly self-righteous legal battle with Harriet’s father for custody of the children he had abandoned. When the ruling came down against him, he felt personally victimized by the Lord Chancellor. As always with Shelley, the personal had a political aspect. His unshakable faith in his own goodness carried over into his thought, and even his poetry, to dangerous effect. Shelley considered himself a true philanthropist, and was willing to give his time and money to any good cause. But he had an enormous capacity for hatred, especially political hatred. Perhaps Lord Castlereagh, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, deserved Shelley’s indelible attack in “The Masque of Anarchy”: “I met Murder on the way— / He had a mask like Castlereagh.” Shelley’s conviction that all authority figures were tyrants applied not just to unpopular politicians but to priests, schoolmasters, and even parents. In 1811, he inveighed, again without the shadow of a smile, against the oppression visited on Harriet, with whom he had just eloped: “Her father has persecuted her in a most horrible way, by endeavouring to compel her to go to school.” Quite simply, Shelley believed that anyone who disagreed with him was depraved at heart. As a result, his political vision was essentially Manichaean: “The Manichaean philosophy respecting the origin and government of the world, if not true, is at least an hypothesis conformable to the experience of actual facts,” he wrote. Mankind was made miserable by the willful selfishness of tyrants and priests. And the millennium, in Shelley’s limitless, idealizing vision, was not just a matter of universal suffrage. In “Prometheus Unbound,” he imagines it as a time when the mountains of the moon turn into “living fountains,” “ugly human shapes and visages” grow “mild and lovely,” and it becomes “the pain of bliss / To move, to breathe, to be.” With so much at stake, wouldn’t it be justified to kill the handful of wicked men who stood between humanity and its golden age? This was precisely the logic of the Terrorists during the French Revolution; and Shelley, though he often deplored the excesses of Jacobinism, never began to understand the perils of its utopian vision, or his own. In “The Assassins,” an unfinished story written in 1814, he imagined a quasi-Jacobin community that would kill the world’s oppressors as unhesitatingly as it would kill poisonous snakes: “And if the poisoner has assumed a human shape, if the bane be distinguished only from the viper’s venom by the excess and extent of its devastation will the savior and avenger here retract and pause entrenched behind the superstition of the indefeasible divinity of man?” “The Assassins” was a juvenile work, and most of the time Shelley went out of his way to insist that the revolution he desired must be nonviolent. He advocated a form of passive resistance, even in the wake of the Peterloo massacre of 1819, when cavalry charged at a demonstration on the outskirts of Manchester, killing eleven people: “And if then the tyrants dare, / Let them ride among you there, / Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew— / What they like, that let them do.” But these pragmatic caveats remained on the surface. In the depths of his imagination, where his poetry was born, he remained vengefully Manichaean. In “Adonais,” he seems to suggest that the right-wing reviewers who panned Keats’s “Endymion” actually did not have souls. While the dead poet’s “pure spirit” will become “a portion of the Eternal,” he writes, their “cold embers” will “choke the sordid hearth of shame.” Shelley, who frequently quoted the Platonic injunction “Know thyself,” never knew himself well enough to acknowledge the intolerance and self-righteousness that went hand in hand with his sublime egotism. Instead, exiled in Italy with few friends or readers, he indulged in the voluptuous self-pity that animates so many of his poems. In his own eyes, he was always misunderstood by the world, like the lonely creature he wrote about in “The Sensitive Plant”: “But none ever trembled and panted with bliss / In the garden, the field, or the wilderness, / Like a doe in the noon-tide with love’s sweet want, / As the companionless Sensitive Plant.” The most important limitation of Wroe’s method is that it leaves her with as little critical perspective on Shelley as Shelley had himself. Being Shelley means feeling as Shelley felt, and Wroe tremblingly recapitulates the poet’s sense of being too fragile for this world: “Rain punished Shelley, too. He stood in it, his heart naked to its freezing, battering drops.” By the time he drowns, Wroe’s Shelley has become literally angelic, ready to return to his heavenly home: “White wings unfolded vastly from his shoulders, as if through this battering frenzy he could rise to the upper sky.” But, if there is one lesson to be drawn from Shelley’s life and work, it is that you can’t trust a man who believes he is an angel.
ILLUSTRATION: DIVYA SRINIVASAN
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