The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Vol. VII 
edited by Nora Crook.
Johns Hopkins, 931 pp., £103.50, May 2021, 978 1 4214 3783 5
Show More
Show More

Asummerstorm in the Ligurian Sea can blow up out of nowhere. The Shelleys moved to the Bay of Lerici, halfway between Pisa and Genoa, at the end of April 1822. The place they rented, Casa Magni, was a former boathouse between the fishing village of Lerici and the even smaller hamlet of San Terenzo. ‘The sea came up to the door,’ Mary Shelley later wrote. ‘A steep hill sheltered it behind.’ As well as Mary, her husband, their surviving son and their servants, the household included their new friends Edward and Jane Williams, their children and servants, and Mary’s half-sister, Claire Clairmont.

Clairmont’s five-year-old daughter with Byron, Allegra, had died of typhus (or possibly malaria) only a few days earlier, in the convent near Ravenna where her father had more or less abandoned her. Percy Shelley had been fond of the child: ‘with me/She was a special favourite,’ he wrote in ‘Julian and Maddalo’ (1818); waiting in Byron’s Venetian palazzo for her father to turn up, they had ‘sat there, rolling billiard balls about’. Williams wrote in his journal that as they sat on the terrace one night, Shelley

grasped me violently by the arm and stared steadfastly on the white surf that broke upon the beach under our feet … I demanded of him if he were in pain – but he only answered by saying: ‘There it is again! There!’ … He saw, as plainly as he then saw me, a naked child rise from the sea, and clap its hands as in joy, smiling at him.

Shelley’s poetry is full of supernatural phenomena, ‘spirits of the air,/And genii of the evening breeze’. It’s possible to account for them through reference to classical models, but it’s also worth remembering that the sight of a ghostly child rising from the sea was as real to him as the sound of a skylark singing on a summer evening.

In the middle of May, Shelley wrote to Byron that, ‘after the first shock’, Clairmont had ‘sustained her loss with more fortitude than I had dared to hope’. Shelley, too, was in better spirits, having taken possession of a sailing boat built for him at Genoa. ‘It cost me 80l.,’ he wrote to his friend John Gisborne in June, ‘and reduced me to some difficulty in point of money. However, it is swift and beautiful, and appears quite a vessel. Williams is captain, and we drive along in this delightful bay in the evening wind … until earth appears another world.’ But at night the hallucinations continued, and he woke the house with his screaming. He saw Edward and Jane Williams, ‘their bodies lacerated, their bones starting through their skin, their faces pale yet stained with blood’, coming to warn him that ‘the sea is flooding the house and it is all coming down.’ Out on the terrace he met ‘the figure of himself’, which asked: ‘How long do you mean to be content?’ He saw himself bending over Mary’s bed and strangling her. The visions were infectious: Jane twice saw Shelley walking on the terrace when he was out in his boat.

Shelley wasn’t wrong to fear that he was endangering Mary’s life. ‘I was confined to my room by severe illness,’ she wrote in the notes to her 1839 edition of Shelley’s poems, ‘and could not move.’ She was less circumspect in a letter to Maria Gisborne in August 1822:

I was threatened with a miscarriage, and, after a week of great ill health, on Sunday the 16th this took place at eight in the morning. I was so ill that for seven hours I lay nearly lifeless … At length ice was brought to our solitude: it came before the doctor, so Claire and Jane were afraid of using it; but Shelley overruled them, and by an unsparing application of it I was restored.

This was her fifth pregnancy (at least) in eight years. In Epipsychidion, written in 1821, when he was freshly besotted with Emilia Viviani, the 19-year-old daughter of the governor of Pisa, ‘imprisoned’ in a convent while her parents found her a suitable husband, Shelley had compared Mary to the ‘cold chaste Moon’ and complained of lying in a ‘chaste cold bed/ … nor alive nor dead’. By the summer of 1822, Shelley’s erotic attentions had turned to Jane Williams, and Viviani was dismissed as a ‘cloud instead of a Juno’. But it was Mary who nearly died of a miscarriage.

On 1 July, she ‘had begun to crawl from my bedroom to the terrace, but bad spirits had succeeded to ill health’, and she pleaded with Shelley to abandon his plans to sail to Livorno to meet Byron and Leigh Hunt, where they intended to discuss their new magazine, the Liberal. ‘I could not endure that he should go,’ Mary wrote. He went all the same, with Edward Williams, Daniel Roberts (the naval captain who had overseen the building of the boat) and the ‘boat boy’, Charles Vivian. They made good time: ‘a run of 45 to 50 miles in seven hours and a half’, Williams noted in his journal. A week later, Shelley, Williams and Vivian embarked on the return voyage. At around half past six a storm hit and the boat went down with all hands. Their bodies were washed ashore near Viareggio ten days later.

Among Shelley’s papers was ‘a bundle of leaves with the character of an unbound working notebook’, in Nora Crook’s description, containing a rough draft of The Triumph of Life. The fragment – 547 lines of terza rima – is the first and most substantial piece in Volume VII of the Johns Hopkins edition of Shelley’s complete poetry, edited by Crook. The first three volumes, edited by Donald Reiman, Neil Fraistat, Crook and others, appeared in 2000, 2005 and 2012. As Crook explains, Reiman died in 2019 ‘after a long illness that had caused him to retire from his editorial role’. The publication sequence was disrupted; volumes four, five, six and eight are still to come.

The texts in this volume, Crook says, ‘were transcribed directly from or corrected by me against the original MSS … some of them more than once, with the aid of magnifying glasses and other apparatus’. She has taken care over every letter, noting the difficulty of distinguishing between a lowercase and uppercase ‘S’ when ‘the size is often intermediate’. Shelley made a fair copy of only the first 48 lines of The Triumph of Life, and Mary wrote in the preface to her 1824 edition of Posthumous Poems that it ‘was left in so unfinished a state, that I arranged it in its present form with great difficulty’. At one point she noted: ‘There is a chasm here in the MS which it is impossible to fill up.’ Despite or because of this difficulty, Crook writes, ‘during the second half of the 20th century Triumph became the most meticulously edited of all PBS’s works’, with G.M. Matthews and Reiman separately producing what she calls ‘watershed’ editions of the text in the 1960s. Crook’s version marks another advance: ‘In spite of sixty years of close scrutiny of the MS by Matthews, Reiman and many others, we have found need for further small corrections to current texts, as other editors will do after us.’

The resulting volume is both a comprehensive scholarly variorum edition and a handsome and accessible reading text. As well as The Triumph of Life, its discarded openings, rejected passages and lyric fragments from the manuscript, Crook’s volume contains what’s left of Posthumous Poems once ‘the poems that PBS had released during his lifetime’ and translations have been excluded: these appear (or will appear) in other volumes. ‘Julian and Maddalo’, ‘The Witch of Atlas’, ‘Letter to Maria Gisborne’ and ‘Mont Blanc’ are out; ‘An Unfinished Drama’, ‘Charles the First’ and around half the shorter lyrics are in. But the main event is The Triumph of Life.

The poet, kept awake all night by ‘thoughts which must remain untold’, has stretched out at dawn under an old chestnut tree on a slope overlooking the Mediterranean, ‘When a strange trance over my fancy grew/ … /And then a Vision on my brain was rolled.’ He imagines he is sitting beside a dusty summer road, on which a ‘great stream’ of people is ‘hurrying to and fro’. They seem confused and miserable, ‘some flying from the thing they feared and some/Seeking the object of another’s fear’. A chariot appears, ‘on the silent storm/Of its own rushing splendour’, with a mysterious passenger concealed ‘Beneath a dusky hood and double cape’. The chariot ploughs through the crowd, stirring it into a frenzy: ‘Swift, fierce and obscene/The wild dance maddens in the van’ – the poem shifts here to the present tense – but before you know it

                            the chariot hath
        Past over them; nor other trace I find
But as of foam after the Ocean’s wrath

        Is spent upon the desert shore: – behind,
Old men, and women foully disarrayed
        Shake thin grey hair in the insulting wind.

Horrified and saddened, the poet asks aloud: ‘what is this?/Whose shape is that within the car?’ He is surprised when a voice answers him: ‘Life.’ What he had mistaken for ‘an old root which grew/To strange distortion out of the hill side’ turns out to be the remains of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who points out some of ‘the Wise,/The great, the unforgotten’ among ‘those chained to the car’ – Napoleon, Voltaire, Frederick (the Great), Kant, Catherine (the Great), Plato, Alexander (the Great), Aristotle, Roman emperors from Julius Caesar to Constantine, ‘the Anarchs old’ – before describing ‘how and by what paths I have been brought/To this dread pass’.

One spring morning, Rousseau found himself ‘asleep/Under a mountain’ beside a ‘gentle rivulet’ when a ‘shape all light’, brighter than the sun, appeared to him, walking on the water, and he asked her to ‘Shew whence I came, and where I am, and why.’ This ‘new Vision’ reprises what the poet has already seen, though it’s less a repetition than a mise en abyme, as the ‘cold bright car’ again bears down on and sweeps over the multitude, leaving Rousseau among those ‘fallen, by the way side’. The poet asks:

        ‘Then, what is Life?’ I said … the cripple cast
His eye upon the car which now had rolled
        Onward, as if that look must be the last,

And answered … ‘Happy those for whom the fold

(This is where the poem cuts off.)

The imagery of supernatural chariots and pageants wasn’t new to Shelley. In Queen Mab (1813), written long before he’d seen the carvings on the triumphal arches of Titus and Constantine in Rome, he described ‘the chariot of the Fairy Queen’. In Prometheus Unbound (1820), Demogorgon rides to depose Jupiter in a ‘car’ driven by the Spirit of the Hour: ‘Feel’st thou not, O world,/The earthquake of his chariot thundering up/Olympus?’ Later in the drama, ‘A train of dark Forms and Shadows passes by confusedly, singing.’ In Adonais (1821), a ghostly funeral procession comes to mourn Keats:

                                        Desires and Adorations,
Wingèd Persuasions and veiled Destinies,
Splendours, and Glooms, and glimmering Incarnations
Of hopes and fears, and twilight Phantasies;
And Sorrow, with her family of Sighs,
And Pleasure, blind with tears, led by the gleam
Of her own dying smile instead of eyes,
Came in slow pomp; – the moving pomp might seem
Like pageantry of mist on an autumnal stream.

Shelley’s poetry can suffer from a tendency towards abstraction, but it is often saved from itself by a corresponding urge to make that abstraction concrete. Over the course of this stanza, the ‘Desires and Adorations’ coalesce into human, or almost human, figures: it’s hard to visualise ‘Pleasure, blind with tears, led by the gleam/Of her own dying smile instead of eyes’ – the image, as Paul de Man observed of the ‘shape all light’ in The Triumph of Life, is ‘referentially meaningless’ – but there is meaning in the idea of blindness being hard to visualise. Shelley’s most famous procession, faster and wilder, comes in The Mask of Anarchy:

As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.

I met Murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him.

The Mask of Anarchy was a protest ballad, written in urgent response to Peterloo. Shelley called the working people of England to non-violent resistance: ‘Stand ye calm and resolute.’ (‘Meet together if ye will,’ he had written in his presumptuous prose Address to the Irish People of 1812, ‘but do not meet in a mob.’) A ‘maniac maid’ who says her name is Hope (‘But she looked more like Despair’) lies down in front of the horses ridden by Murder, Fraud and Anarchy, but before they can trample her, ‘a mist, a light, an image’ appears in their path: ‘It grew – a Shape arrayed in mail/Brighter than the viper’s scale’ and ‘With step as soft as wind it passed/O’er the heads of men.’ All of a sudden, Hope is on her feet and Anarchy ‘Lay dead earth upon the earth’. Quite how this has been achieved remains obscure, and the source of the voice calling people to ‘Rise like Lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number’ is uncertain: it comes, we are told, ‘as if’ from the blood-drenched land (the poem seems here to obliquely acknowledge its own wishful thinking). A disembodied voice of doubtful provenance – a voice like Shelley’s – can’t lead a revolution (especially if no one will publish it: fear of prosecution meant The Mask of Anarchy didn’t come out until 1832). But although the rousing optimism is quietly tempered, it’s still the poem’s dominant mood.

It’s a mood starkly lacking from The Triumph of Life, with its deceptively joyous title, and its depiction of the triumph of life not over death or adversity but over the living. The ‘shape all light’ here is a more ambiguous figure than its predecessor in The Mask of Anarchy. In Adonais, where ‘Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,/Stains the white radiance of eternity’, or the sonnet ‘Lift Not the Painted Veil’, Shelley had depicted life as a barrier that separates us from the Neoplatonist ‘One’, but these are curiously inert images, far from the rampaging vitality of The Triumph of Life. Life and death are not opposites; they are entangled with, dependent on each other. Banal as the observation may be, Shelley put it to productive use. ‘Drive my dead thoughts over the universe/Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!’ he implored in ‘Ode to the West Wind’ (1819). It’s a self-aggrandising request but also a self-effacing one: he’s asking that his thoughts be carried away on the air so they can be brought down to earth and turned into compost. The poem ends with an optimistic rhetorical question: ‘If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’ The Triumph of Life, however, is a salutary reminder that, just as surely, winter will follow spring – and the coming of spring may bring violence and destruction.

‘Ode to the West Wind’ is the most successful of Shelley’s earlier experiments with terza rima, the rhyme scheme of The Triumph of Life, in part because he set himself other constraints too (it consists of five fourteen-line sections). ‘A Vision of the Sea’ (1820) shows what could happen without these limits. A gloriously unhinged fragment in rhyming couplets, it describes the wreck of a ship carrying a cargo of tigers:

The wide world of waters is vibrating. Where
Is the ship? On the verge of the wave where it lay
One tiger is mingled in ghastly affray
With a sea-snake.

Elsewhere the constraints are too tight: swathes of ‘Prince Athanase’ (1817), his first attempt at terza rima, galumph along, as Shelley tries to cram his English sentences into Italian verse form:

For none than he a purer heart could have,
Or that loved good more for itself alone;
Of nought in heaven or earth was he the slave.

By the time he came to write The Triumph of Life, Shelley had realised that his syntax didn’t have to be confined by the metre, but could be in productive tension with it (perhaps inspired by what Byron had done in Don Juan with the ottava rima of Ariosto and Tasso). In Dante, each tercet tends to correspond to a complete sentence, or set of clauses; in The Triumph of Life there are very few end-stopped lines, let alone tercets. The sentences cascade through the stanzas and hurtle round the line endings (‘enjambment’ seems too stately a word for it) splashing out rhymes on the way. Barely contained by the verse form, they shape it into something new in the process.

‘When Shelley was on board, he had his papers with him,’ Mary wrote, ‘and much of The Triumph of Life was written as he sailed or weltered on that sea which was soon to engulf him.’ His biographer Richard Holmes thinks ‘he wrote it partly on the boat, and partly in his study at night … The writing is in ink, unusually large for Shelley, and bleached by sun.’ Reiman thought the lack of water damage to the manuscript argued against its having been written at sea. Either way, the exhilaration in the poetry, the tension between the onward rush of the words and the constraint of the verse form, as well as the imagery of foaming waves breaking on sandy shores, must owe something to the experience of sailing close-hauled against a fresh breeze.

Beginning a line with the verb ‘Burst’ is a characteristic move, and a trick Shelley had used before, in the sonnet ‘England in 1819’, which consists of a single sentence and withholds its main verb till the final couplet. The dire problems the poem lists ‘Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may/Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day’. The word ‘Burst’ does what it says, and disrupts the rhythm, pulling the caesura to the beginning of the line. It has a similar effect in an astonishing extended simile in The Triumph of Life, where Rousseau describes the effect of taking a drink offered by the ‘shape all light’:

And suddenly my brain became as sand

        Where the first wave had more than half erased
The track of deer on desert Labrador,
        Whilst the empty wolf from which they fled amazed

Leaves his stamp visibly upon the shore
        Until the second bursts – so on my sight
Burst a new Vision never seen before. –

Only here the interruption is also a repetition, diminishing it in one sense – the sound of the first still lingers – enhancing it in another, because the repetition is unexpected.

In his essay on the poem, ‘Shelley Disfigured’, de Man identified this as a ‘key passage’ because of the way ‘the scene dramatises the failure to satisfy a desire for self-knowledge’. He reads the poem as a series of ‘repetitive erasures’: ‘The previous occupants of the narrative space are expelled by decree, by the sheer power of utterance, and consequently at once forgotten.’ According to de Man, ‘The Triumph of Life warns us that nothing, whether deed, word, thought or text, ever happens in relation, positive or negative, to anything that precedes, follows or exists elsewhere.’

It’s possible to see some wish fulfilment here, given the aspects of de Man’s life in Belgium – including the antisemitic articles he wrote for Le Soir during the Nazi occupation – that he had reason to erase, or forget. Shelley, too, had plenty in his past he would have liked to expel by decree, by the sheer power of utterance. ‘Jane brings her guitar,’ he wrote to John Gisborne, describing the June evenings on his boat, ‘and if the past and the future could be obliterated, the present would content me so well that I could say with Faust to the passing moment, “Remain thou, thou art so beautiful.”’ Mary and Percy’s son William had died in Rome, aged three, in June 1819. The fragment ‘My lost William, thou in whom’ is only seventeen and a half lines; sometimes even Shelley was lost for words. It ends:

        Let me think that thro’ low seeds
Of the sweet flowers and sunny grass
Into these hues and scents may pass
A portion

Their daughter Clara died aged one in Venice in September 1818; Mary’s first baby, a girl born prematurely in London in February 1815, died at twelve days. Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook, drowned herself in the Serpentine in November 1816. She was 21 and pregnant (Shelley wasn’t the father). He was denied custody of their two surviving children. ‘I am hardly anxious … to hear from you,’ he had written to Harriet in September 1814, after leaving her for Mary, ‘as I despair of any generosity or virtue on your part.’ There’s a glimmer of self-awareness in Epipsychidion, a dawning realisation that his serial disappointment in women had at least as much to do with him as with them – ‘In many mortal forms I rashly sought/The shadow of that idol of my thought’ – but the self-pity is unabated: the poem literally says ‘Ah, woe is me!’

Shelley’s own premature death at sea casts a long shadow over his life and work, and over those events in both that seem to pre-empt it. They aren’t omens, but you can’t put them down to coincidence, either. It isn’t surprising that someone who spent so much time on the water should have written about it; or that someone who loved sailing but couldn’t swim (and liked to take risks) should have died by drowning. In April 1821, Maria Gisborne’s son had pulled Shelley from a canal near Pisa after their boat capsized. ‘If you can’t swim,’ the Byron character in ‘Julian and Maddalo’ says, ‘Beware of Providence.’ De Man couldn’t avoid the problem of Shelley’s death either: ‘The final test of reading … depends on how one reads the textuality of this event, how one disposes of Shelley’s body.’

In Posthumous Poems, Mary Shelley stopped The Triumph of Life a few lines early, finishing with the artificially neat ‘“Then, what is life?” I cried.–’ Stopford Brooke concluded the introduction to his 1880 selection of Shelley’s poems with the pronouncement: ‘And with that cry all that Shelley wrote is ended.’ He was wrong, of course. C.D. Locock’s 1911 edition of the poems was the first to include the final lines, though it retained ‘cried’, which had been crossed out in the manuscript and replaced with the calmer ‘said’. In any case, as Crook writes, Shelley’s ‘very last reported poetic word was not Triumph but a welcome to [Leigh] Hunt on his arrival in Italy’, now lost, which, Hunt remembered, began with a description of fireflies. ‘So the final poetic images that PBS left behind in memory were not the dead eyes of the crippled Rousseau … but dark-bright insects, lamps of earth, the eyes of a friend.’

And it’s in his accounts of male friendship that Shelley’s poems are most revealing of the ‘human interest’ that Mary so often found lacking from his poems. ‘Our boat is asleep in Serchio’s stream’ describes a voyage taken by Lionel (Shelley), Melchior (Williams) and Dominic the boatman (Shelley’s servant Domenico Bini) along the rivers and canals of Tuscany in May 1821. The poem is fragmentary and scrappy, but no less appealing for that. Some of the lines of dialogue – omitted by Mary – sound almost like spoken English: ‘Heave the ballast over board/And stow the eatables in the aft locker.’ Shelley remembers how he and his schoolfriends ‘used in summer after six/ … to mix/Hard eggs and radishes and rolls – at Eton’ and go for picnics in the fields; he finds the same pleasure in his outings with Edwards, ‘the most amiable of companions’. His expectations of the women he fell in love with were unreasonable, sometimes destructively so, but he seems to have been happy to accept his male friends as he found them.

By the time of his death on 8 July 1822, a month shy of his thirtieth birthday, the adolescent opening of Queen Mab – ‘How wonderful is death!’ – had evolved into a hopeless question: ‘Then, what is Life?’ Shelley had no answer, but he puts the question in a poem that rushes relentlessly on, spiralling back on itself through extremes of euphoria and despair, redrawing the bounds of what had been thought possible in English verse, until it is abruptly cut off.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences