Quite a few of Shelley’s contemporaries came to the view that he wasn’t all there – the inhabitants of Marlow, for example, who were treated to the recurrent spectacle of a disgraceful young radical poet returning distractedly to his cottage after long scrambles in the woods. ‘He was the most interesting figure I ever saw,’ a child witness recalled later in life, still much struck. ‘His steps were often hurried, and sometimes he was rather fantastically arrayed … on his head would be a wreath of what in Marlow we call “old man’s beard” and wild flowers intermixed; at these times he seemed quite absorbed, and he dashed along regardless of all he met or passed.’ Not all the neighbours thought so admiringly of him, needless to say; and his poetry too would find detractors as well as admirers, dividing opinion over the next two hundred years with comical extremity. William Hazlitt, although notionally on the same side in the big political questions of the day, was pugnaciously uncharmed by the cast of mind that he discerned in Shelley’s dashing about, and anticipated a whole school of criticism: ‘There is no caput mortuum of worn-out thread-bare experience to serve as a ballast to his mind; it is all volatile intellectual salt of tartar, that refuses to combine its evanescent, inflammable essence with any thing solid or any thing lasting.’ But others found this odd sense of irreality more winning, or at least arresting. Getting to know him for the first time, his future sister-in-law reported delightedly that Shelley behaved ‘just as if he were Adam in Paradise before his fall’, and she was not alone in finding in him an innocence of the world that lay about him.
As Richard Holmes’s 1974 biography showed with such intelligence and affection, Shelley was fully aware of his reputation for being away with the fairies and became brilliantly adept at playing along with it, often to seductive effect; but it wasn’t just an act. Some of the best stories come in Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron by the adventurer Edward John Trelawny, and so are a bit too good to be quite true, but they are evidence of the way Shelley came across. Trelawny’s account of Shelley’s attempt to learn how to swim in a deep pool in the Arno catches the thing very well:
He doffed his jacket and trousers, kicked off his shoes and socks, and plunged in, and there he lay stretched out on the bottom like a conger eel, not making the least effort or struggle to save himself. He would have drowned if I had not instantly fished him out. When he recovered his breath, he said:
‘I always find the bottom of the well, and they say Truth lies there. In another minute I should have found it, and you would have found an empty shell. It is an easy way of getting rid of the body.’
Maybe it happened just like that: it reflects suspiciously well on the plain manliness of Trelawny of course, but it would be a weird story to make up. Either way, it beautifully gets something about the oddly tangential or tentative relationship Shelley enjoyed with the business of his own existence – what Trelawny calls ‘the careless, not to say impatient, way in which the poet bore his burden of life’. Perhaps more plausibly recalled than the conger eel story is the fine remark made by Shelley’s friend Jane Williams when Trelawny first encountered him. No sooner had they met than Shelley disappeared, and a puzzled Trelawny asked where on earth he had gone. ‘Mrs Williams said: “Who? Shelley? Oh, he comes and goes like a spirit, no one knows when or where.”’
Things in his poetry habitually come and go like spirits, ‘visiting/This various world with as inconstant wing/As summer winds that creep from flower to flower’; and many of his most attentive readers, both admirers and detractors, have found its quality of not being all there the secret of his highly idiosyncratic genius. T.S. Eliot professed himself mystified by these exemplarily Shelleyan lines from ‘To a Skylark’:
Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear,
Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there.
‘I should be grateful for any explanation of this stanza’, Eliot said.
Until now I am still ignorant to what sphere Shelley refers, or why it should have silver arrows, or what the devil he means by an intense lamp narrowing in the white dawn; though I can understand that we could hardly see the lamp of a silver sphere narrowing in white dawn (why dawn? as he has just referred to the pale purple even).
The editors of the generous Penguin Selected Poems and Prose seek to clear up any obscurity with a plain note, ‘silver sphere: The planet Venus as the morning star’ – and no doubt that is right. (Shelley can move from the ‘purple even’ to the dawn without a pause because he is describing the same object: Venus is the evening star too.) But, although he is purposefully unsympathetic, Eliot is not entirely wrong about the way the poetry works, which is mysterious and elusive: the verse evokes at once an optical effect that one might seek to ground in the visible phenomena of the early morning and something incorrigibly private – ‘Our own perceptions are the world to us,’ as Shelley once put it. The morning star dwindles in the growing light of day until it is no longer there except as an intuition or perhaps a fiction: Shelley charms the star into what Thomas Hardy – a great admirer though a very different sort of poet – once called ‘existlessness’. And, to add to the sense of abstraction, this is a metaphor for a metaphor, since Shelley is likening the dwindling star to the soaring skylark, a bird whose principal enchantment is that it flies so high that you can’t see it – ‘Hail to thee blithe Spirit!/Bird thou never wert.’
‘Thou art unseen’: there could be no higher praise. The scholar Timothy Webb once made the deceptively simple observation that for a poet notorious for emphasising the positive in the form of revolutionary optimism, Shelley was conspicuously good at using negative constructions. ‘Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth/Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!’ he says in the ‘Ode to the West Wind’, which is importantly different from, let’s say, ‘Scatter, as from a great and roaring hearth,’ and not just in euphony: the linguistic play of a negative is all about registering the possibility of something that is nevertheless not realised. Shelley uses such constructions repeatedly to swirl together what happens and what doesn’t happen:
the snows descend
Upon that mountain – none beholds them there –
Nor when the sunset wraps their flakes in fire
Or the starbeams dart through them –
Gertrude Stein once memorably remarked of her childhood home of Oakland, California, ‘There is no there there,’ a phrase which seems to me coincidentally to capture what Shelley does in some of his very best poems, and suggests the ways in which he is unlike most of his Romantic contemporaries, who were in one way or another very committed to the idea of being ‘there’. ‘For thou wert there,’ Coleridge says admiringly in the poem he addresses to Wordsworth, meaning that his friend had actually been in France during the Revolution, ‘thine own brows garlanded,/Amid the tremor of a realm aglow’. In this respect you can see Shelley’s great and fruitful friendship with Byron as a genuine meeting of admiring antitypes. Shelley dosed Byron with the elevated Wordsworthian feelings that made it into the third canto of Childe Harold (‘to me/High mountains are a feeling’ and so on), but Byron himself quickly came to recognise that he had been momentarily taken over by a voice not his own. ‘As to “Don Juan” – confess – confess – you dog and be candid that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing,’ he wrote to a friend, back in his home idiom again. ‘It may be bawdy – but is it not good English? it may be profligate – but is it not life, is it not the thing? – Could any man have written it – who has not lived in the world?’ Shelley, by contrast, entertained very mixed feelings about the merits of living in the world – ‘the trance of ordinary life’, he calls it in the preface to his long revolutionary poem Laon and Cythna. Or, as he put it most disarmingly in the charming ‘Letter to Maria Gisborne’, ‘this familiar life, which seems to be/But is not’.
It is not the critical fashion to dwell on Shelley’s Platonism, and it is true that his expressions of enthusiasm for various Platonic doctrines were qualified. But it is difficult not to see the main feeling in his work as a conviction that the world of experience is merely an imperfect clue to the real reality that lies beyond, the idea of which haunts it; and, after all, that is nothing but a Platonic notion. ‘The truth and splendour of his imagery and the melody of his language is the most intense that it is possible to conceive,’ Shelley says of Plato in his polemic A Defence of Poetry; he translated the Symposium, and once said he would rather be damned with Plato and Bacon than go to heaven with the Anglican worthies Paley and Malthus. ‘You know that I always seek in what I see the manifestation of something beyond the present & tangible object,’ he told a correspondent: there is ‘no more fitting epigraph to the dynamic driving Shelley’s literary career’, according to the poet and critic Michael O’Neill, one of our best Shelleyan commentators. The ghostly effects that this penchant for intangibility enables in his poetry – its distinctive repertoire of veils and shadows and hauntings – are eerily magnificent and inimitably his own. No other poet could have conceived the extraordinary opening lines of the ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’: ‘The awful shadow of some unseen Power/Floats though unseen amongst us’. Not even a Power, but the shadow of a Power, so already placed at two removes from anything like concrete presence; and then the oddly effective insistence involved in repeating the word ‘unseen’, as though he were struggling to capture the Power’s sheerly counter-empirical invisibility by doubling up the word.
Or take the great lines which seem to set out to describe the landscape around Mont Blanc but then end up doing something else altogether:
Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down
From the ice gulfs that guard his secret throne,
Bursting through these dark mountains like
Of lightning through the tempest
What’s there, the present and tangible object, is the river Arve, but that turns out to be a sort of real-life simile (‘in likeness of’) for what really matters, which is something numinous called ‘Power’: the rocks and stones and trees dissolve away like the morning star. Whether it is ‘the Arve’ or ‘Power’ that is really the referent of ‘his’ is one of those nice Shelleyan imponderabilities that quite often attend his pronouns, as in the mystery of ‘its’ a few lines earlier:
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom –
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters, – with a sound but half its own …
The sound is but half that of ‘human thought’, you think at first; then again it could just as well be but half that of ‘the everlasting universe of things’. A more normally argumentative sort of poetry might require you to choose, but it is part of the Shelley effect that it doesn’t seem to make much difference: in a way he was honour-bound to get such things confused, given that, as he said charismatically in his brief essay ‘On Life’, pronouns such as ‘I, you, they, are … merely marks employed to denote the different modifications of the one mind.’ Donald Davie once took Shelley to task for his ‘loose use’ of pronouns, which showed, Davie thought, a lack of discipline and probably suspect moral hygiene; but the tangles of such moments are not really a mark of carelessness, any more than is the repetition of ‘unseen’ in the opening lines of the ‘Hymn’. Rather they are a stylistic marker of the way you bump into the limits of coherent expression when the actual and the abstract are so thoroughly intermingled, and everything is itself and yet somehow suggests the idea of itself at the same time.
‘As to real flesh & blood, you know that I do not deal in those articles,’ Shelley once said with a kind of rueful pride in his reputation. ‘You might as well go to a ginshop for a leg of mutton, as expect any thing human or earthly from me.’ Eliot noted, with guarded admiration, Shelley’s ‘unusual faculty of passionate apprehension of abstract ideas’: his similes are indeed highly unusual in the way they entangle the material world and the world of ideas. ‘Lo, the sun floats up the sky/Like thought-winged Liberty’, for instance, would seem to have things the wrong way round, since it likens the more familiar thing to the more obscure (‘Lines written among the Euganean Hills’). Or consider the Sensitive Plant, in the poem of that title, of which Shelley says: ‘It loves, even like Love’ – a seriously odd piece of impassioned literary Platonism, for what else is love going to resemble in Platonic metaphysics but Love? ‘I love Love,’ he writes elsewhere with a winning ingenuousness (‘Rarely, rarely comest thou’) – well you would, wouldn’t you? The young William Empson identified with great brilliance in Seven Types of Ambiguity a related and recurrent feature of Shelley’s poetry which similarly reveals this gift for being wrapped up in itself: he called it the ‘self-inwoven simile’, and it happened, Empson said, ‘when not being able to think of a comparison fast enough he compares the thing to a vaguer or more abstract notion of itself, or points out that it is its own nature, or that it sustains itself by supporting itself.’ He has in mind things like this (from The Triumph of Life): ‘So came a chariot on the silent storm/Of its own rushing splendour.’ Or this (from The Witch of Atlas): ‘she lay enfolden/In the warm shadow of her loveliness.’ Or this (from Prometheus Unbound): ‘Thou art folded, thou art lying/In the light which is undying/Of thine own joy.’ Whether such moments really arose from Shelley’s going too fast to think of something quite different is doubtful: the contrivance of these ‘short-circuited comparisons’, as Empson calls them, seems to me one expression of a rich fantasy of self-dependence that crops up all over the place in Shelley.
How all this connects with his politics is a nice question. ‘The difference is merely nominal between those two classes of thought which are vulgarly distinguished by the names of ideas and of external objects,’ he says in ‘On Life’, in the voice of breezy reasonableness that characterises his highly engaging prose; but this, like his idealist professions that things are as they are perceived, might not seem a very hopeful basis for radical politics. ‘I will publish nothing that shall not conduce to virtue,’ he told his publisher, sounding very gauche, but he did not abandon the belief that helping to reform the world was what he should be doing: ‘I consider Poetry very subordinate to moral & political science, & if I were well, certainly I should aspire to the latter; for I can conceive a great work, embodying the discoveries of all ages, & harmonising the contending creeds by which mankind have been ruled.’ Eleanor Marx reported her father’s view that Shelley was ‘essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism’ – not a liberal backslider as Byron would no doubt have turned out to be. But the truth seems to be that Shelley’s political commitment, which was wholly sincere and life-consuming, joined up only very imperfectly with the deepest instincts of his imagination. ‘He was able to be at once and with the same enthusiasm an 18th-century rationalist and a cloudy Platonist,’ Eliot said, with the distaste of a man who disapproved equally of both; but he was on the money, and Shelley’s most informed admirers, such as Michael O’Neill and M.H. Abrams, have described with rather more sympathy the curious mixture of rational scepticism and exuberant idealism that constitutes his mind. The early work Queen Mab exemplifies that lasting doubleness of attitude in an amusingly stark way: the extensive notes are effectively a primer in progressive Enlightenment thought, while the poem they annotate is a swimming phantasmagoria of fairies and spirits and magic moving cars.
The principal influence on his radical politics was his father-in-law, William Godwin, whose Enquiry Concerning Political Justice taught him a basic lesson in social constructivism: people are brutalised into slaves by the tyranny of unfair social arrangements and what Queen Mab calls ‘the unconquered powers/Of precedent and custom’. The political solution to this predicament, which Shelley took from Godwin, was, as Jack Donovan and Cian Duffy say in the lucid and interesting introduction to their selection, ‘a gradual dissemination of knowledge’ rather than anything more spectacular, like a revolution; and while Shelley contemplated an egalitarian future with due enthusiasm he thought it would be jumping the gun to introduce universal suffrage hastily. But something a bit different happens in the hot moments of his poetry:
Let the axe
Strike at the root, the poison-tree will fall;
And where its venomed exhalations spread
Ruin, and death, and woe, where millions lay
Quenching the serpent’s famine, and their bones
Bleaching unburied in the putrid blast,
A garden shall arise, in loveliness
Surpassing fabled Eden.
I suppose the ‘axe’ might be a particularly effective pamphlet, but it doesn’t sound like it: it sounds more like a magic implement wielded by a wizard. Things are always arising, or being called on to rise, in Shelley’s work, and the word has a telling sort of ambivalence: it is at once a decisive individual act, like a rebellious angel choosing to rise against God, and a more passive or anonymous process, a destiny, like the rise of the Dutch Republic or self-publishing. ‘Rise like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number,’ the working people of England are advised in ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, the dream-vision Shelley wrote in outrage at the killings of Peterloo: the reference to ‘number’ sounds like a tough bit of realpolitik, rather in the spirit of Lenin’s ‘Who whom?’ But the imagined change is immediately figured in a very different mode: ‘Shake your chains to earth like dew’ – the point is not to accuse Shelley of evasive shuffling about the realities of violence, but rather to note that he instinctively imagines change in completely different ways, one of them magical. ‘This need not be,’ a revolutionary voice says in Laon and Cythna, ‘ye might arise, and will/That gold should lose its power, and thrones their glory.’ But when change, in the form of female emancipation, does come in the poem, it takes the strange quasi-Platonic form of the women realising that they had been living in a realm of illusion and that beneath the false world of custom they had been free all along:
women, whom my voice did waken
From their cold, careless, willing slavery,
Sought me: one truth their dreary prison has shaken, –
They looked around, and lo! they became free!
Their many tyrants sitting desolately
In slave-deserted halls, could none restrain
It is not his best moment; but one of his real masterpieces, Prometheus Unbound, gives exactly the same narrative, though much more impressively. Prometheus defeats Jupiter essentially by enduring until the ‘destined hour’: the change in affairs is hard-wired into the structure of the universe, in the same way that the mighty powers that swirl around Mont Blanc are the same powers that are going to resist ‘large codes of fraud and woe’. Lord Eldon might be against you, but the universe is on your side. Once the universe has made its position clear, Jupiter quits with very little fuss; and then
all the inhabitants leapt suddenly
Out of their rest, and gathered in the streets,
Looking in wonder up to Heaven, while yet
The music pealed along …
Were somewhat changed; and after brief surprise
And greetings of delighted wonder, all
Went to their sleep again: and when the dawn
Came – wouldst thou think that toads, and snakes, and efts,
Could e’er be beautiful? yet so they were,
And that with little change of shape or hue:
All things had put their evil nature off
It would be a very solemn response to complain that this doesn’t feel much like an episode in the political history of a nation: it is delightful, partly for the way it admits its own high spirits, and even jollity. The toads themselves look handsome after the revolution, and they didn’t even need much of a makeover.
Peacock put a comical portrait of Shelley into his novel Nightmare Abbey (which Shelley greatly enjoyed) and the following observation shows Peacock’s long expertise in his friend’s character: ‘Ardent spirits cannot but be dissatisfied with things as they are; and, according to their views of the probabilities of amelioration, they will rush into the extremes of either hope or despair.’ Prometheus Unbound is the high point of Shelleyan hope, in all its tangles and hesitancies and incongruities; his last work, The Triumph of Life, is the masterpiece of his despair, and it is interesting that Eliot should have made that poem an exception to his general dismissal of Shelley – it was, Eliot wrote, evidence that Shelley was ‘the one English poet of the 19th century who could even have begun to follow’ in Dante’s footsteps, which sets the level of praise remarkably high. The poem is Shelley’s version of Hell, in which all the flickering uncertainties of the world of appearance evoked in the earlier poems have become an imprisoning nightmare of uncertainty. F.R. Leavis did not like it much, but his account is very good as far as it goes: ‘Vision opens into vision, dream unfolds within dream, and the visionary perspectives … shift elusively and are lost.’
All that was seemed as if it had been not –
As if the gazer’s mind was strewn beneath
Her feet like embers, and she, thought by thought,
Trampled its fires into the dust of death
It is a superbly disorientated poem of broken spirits, a bleak parody of Dante, the stub of a Divine Comedy without any prospect of spiritual progression: it feels like an old man’s poem, though he was still absurdly young when he wrote it, leaving it behind unfinished when he went off to drown in the Bay of Spezia at the age of 29.
‘There was not much comedy in Shelley’s life,’ Peacock remarked in his memoir, a sad thing to say; but the striking contrast between The Triumph of Life and most of Shelley’s work makes you realise that buoyant spirits are not far off in much of it. People were always struck by how young he seemed – ‘At 29 he retained on his tanned and freckled cheeks the fresh look of a boy,’ Trelawny said – and when critics like Eliot or Leavis ticked him off for adolescence or immaturity, it was a backhanded way of responding to the idea of youthfulness that they detected stirring in the poems. His opposition to tyranny was principled, but it was also the reaction of a child whom the grown-ups are always getting at: he really needed tyrants in his life, as Peacock perceptively observed. His dismal father, Sir Timothy, was the archetype, succeeded by schoolmasters, the brutal Keate of Eton, the master and fellows of University College, Oxford (who expelled him for atheism), Eldon the Lord Chancellor, Wordsworth, Jupiter, God. His fantasies about his father seem to have been remarkably intense and childlike: ‘the idea that his father was continually on the watch for a pretext to lock him up haunted him through life,’ Peacock says. But the flipside of this infantilism was an extraordinarily lasting capacity for boyishness: one of his favourite activities, Peacock records, was making paper boats, which he would do whenever an opportunity arose, and he enjoyed especially sailing them on the Serpentine, preferably in an ad hoc assembly of similar excited boys. ‘Whatever may be thought of this amusement for grown gentlemen,’ Peacock reflected, ‘it was at least innocent amusement.’ Shelley was aware of his reputation for high-minded solemnity – ‘Julian is rather serious,’ he said of his self-portrait in ‘Julian and Maddalo’, a poem of exquisitely high spirits that breathes his gratitude for Byron’s friendship and good humour. ‘Perhaps no one will believe in anything in the shape of a joke from me,’ he told an acquaintance, having just written in ‘Peter Bell the Third’ one of the larkiest of all 19th-century poems. There is a kind of glee in Shelley – a ‘blithe’ voice, to use his own word – best exemplified, perhaps, in his Witch of Atlas, who exercises her divine powers by playing ‘pranks’ on men, but also in his own local acts of fancy, and even in his idea of a good teatime in the ‘Letter to Maria Gisborne’:
Yes let’s be merry: we’ll have tea and toast,
Custards for supper, and an endless host
Of syllabubs and jellies and mince-pies,
And other such lady-like luxuries –
You could wish you were there.
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