Shelley in Season

Richard Holmes

  • The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelley and Politics by P.M.S. Dawson
    Oxford, 312 pp, £16.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 19 812095 8
  • Shelley and his World by Claire Tomalin
    Thames and Hudson, 128 pp, £5.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 500 13068 X

If all poets have their psychic season, Shelley belongs to the very late stormy autumn and the very early frosty spring. His is a time of transitions: of high winds, wild hopes and freezing regrets. Both poetically and politically, it is an equinoctial world: restless, dangerous, brimming, beautiful and often cruel. This is the season of the Alastor-poet’s long pursuit, of Prometheus chained to his rock (pierced by ‘moon-freezing crystals’), of Julian’s evening ride with Count Maddalo, of the Wild West Wind, the breath of Autumn’s being.

But there is also a summer Shelley. Hot, brooding, slow, disenchanted with the world, taciturn, sunburnt, anxious to get away from it all. Here he is in a letter to Mary, written from Ravenna in August 1821 (he was holidaying with Byron, always an unsettling experience): ‘My greatest content would be utterly to desert all human society. I would retire with you – our child to a solitary island in the sea, would build a boat, – shut upon my retreat the floodgates of the world. I would read no reviews – talk with no authors ... On this plan I would be alone – would devote either to oblivion or to future generations the overflowings of [my] mind ...’ The passage is quoted both by Paul Dawson and Claire Tomalin, and I can give no better indication of the different styles and standpoints of their two books than by reproducing their comments on it.

Dr Dawson, whose work is a detailed, scholarly study of Shelley’s political ideas, writes with characteristic gravity: ‘Such a plan is not really Utopian, for a Utopia is a complete blueprint for a regenerated society, and what Shelley is concerned about here is the tactics of self-preservation in an obstinately unregenerated society ... It may be objected that Prometheus plans to retire from a regenerated world, but the point there is that Prometheus and Asia have no business in such a world, for they are immortals. Prometheus’ job is done ...’ Shelley’s remark is thus immediately located in its philosophic context: the problem of Utopian idealism or ‘Perfectibility’ in Shelley’s thought – what Keats called, critically, his ‘magnanimity’. Dr Dawson then produces the interesting paradox that in his poetry – Prometheus Unbound, Act Three – the idea of the retreat from the world is post-revolutionary, an act of triumph and victory. So the life and the poetry are held in tension, a political tension between desire and achievement – one of the central themes of his book and an endlessly fascinating one. But we also see at once what Dawson will not give us: any direct human touch, any sense of irony or humour, any immediate appreciation of Shelley’s extraordinary and frequently self-contradictory character, any hint of the sad and sometimes ludicrous emotional complications of his life which produced such an outburst. (In fact, Shelley had just heard of the notorious Elise Foggi scandal about him and Claire – an abortion, an illegitimate child, etc.) But perhaps such things are not relevant to a poet’s political thought?

Claire Tomalin (whose biography of Shelley’s mother-in-law, Mary Wollstone-craft, will be well-known) responds, as one might expect, in a much more personal way. ‘Against this wounded cry must be set the knowledge that Shelley was welcoming Byron’s project to come to Pisa, ready to change his own plan of wintering in Florence to be with him, and was very shortly to find the company of the Williamses utterly indispensable.’ This is a fundamentally different approach: a quick, sympathetic reaction, immediately followed by the biographer’s ironic knowledge of the realities of Shelley’s domestic arrangements, their ceaseless changes and disruptions. Then comes the hurrying narrator’s voice – ‘very shortly’ – promising us the delusive charms of Jane Williams, the guitar, the boat and Casa Magni by the sea. Everything is alive, swift, detailed, full of feeling. Again, it is clear what we will miss: any time to reflect, any chance to see the larger pattern, any real opportunity to enter into the speculative world of Shelley’s intellectual and visionary existence. But this is precisely the limitation of her given format: the short, illustrated text providing an introduction to an author ‘and his world’, restricted in terms of space and stylistic arrangement, and chained – however elegantly – to a procrustean bed of narrative fact.

This, then, is what widely separates these two accounts of Shelley. Yet both contain a similar enthusiasm, an excitement with the subject in hand, which is wonderfully contagious; through several summery days of reading and note-taking – in libraries, in hayfields – they have both given me immense pleasure. In the end my preference has leaned towards Claire Tomalin’s work, as the more intensely executed of the two, but both have their own challenge and special charm.

From beginning to end, Dr Dawson is full of unexpected nuggets, and he is obviously a fine and individualistic researcher. We are given, for example, a new fragment of Shelley on contraception, and a wholly new look at Shelley’s essay ‘On Christianity’ – written at Marlow in 1817 – which is revealed as a key text in his philosophy of the moral and political reformer. There are two brilliant opening chapters on Shelley’s split political background. One part was formed by the radical Whigs, George Fox and the old republican roué the Duke of Norfolk, who proposed the notorious toast to ‘our Sovreign, the People’; the other by the new concept of the ‘democratic revolution’, with its French and American antecedents – Godwin, of course, Tom Paine, Francis Burdett, Cartwright and, interestingly, William Hazlitt. Throughout, Dr Dawson pays Shelley the tribute – a rare one, as it would certainly have been in the days before the pioneering work of the American scholar Kenneth Neill Cameron – of taking his politics seriously. He examines in particular his attitudes (and numerous pamphlets) concerning the Parliamentary Reform movement, the Irish question, the philosophy of Radicalism and Anarchism, and the notion of the imaginative writer as a ‘legislator’ for society.

This famous phrase first appeared, not in the literary ‘Defence of Poetry’, but in the highly political and semi-subversive essay of 1820, ‘A Philosophical View of Reform’, which was suppressed for a hundred years: ‘Poets and Philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. Dawson suggests an intriguing new source: Godwin’s Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1804), in which he speaks of the poet as ‘the legislator of generations and the moral instructor of the world’. The Shelleyan legislator is not, in fact, necessarily a poet: he is the man of moral imagination – the two terms become virtually synonymous in Shelley’s later writing – who is gifted with the power of ‘passionate comunication’ above other men. Poetry, in this sense, ‘legislates’ because it produces both freedom and order in men’s minds. ‘Poetry frees us from slavery,’ remarks Dr Dawson, ‘which is really despair of our own powers, by demonstrating that we are not eternally bound to what is actual, as Prometheus was bound to his cliff by the belief that Jupiter was omnipotent.’ Later, he somewhat dryly adds: ‘it is, of course, natural for an anarchist to insist that true order and true liberty are the same thing.’

This characteristic aside brings me to my one general reservation about the book. We do not really know where Dr Dawson himself stands on these issues: he will not judge politically, he will not evaluate. Yet the ultimate viability of Shelley’s radical political beliefs is surely very important. (It was on such grounds that T.S. Eliot rejected him.) Can they really be treated – say, like Milton’s religious ones – as a mere poetical frame? In the long, central discussion of Shelley’s anarchism, Dr Dawson suddenly writes: ‘In the perspective of philosophical anarchism it is moral progress that is really at issue. Does the acquirement of factual and scientific knowledge, the improvement of technological resources – the whole Baconian enterprise – really serve to make society juster or more moral?’ But just as a confrontation seems unavoidable, Dr Dawson performs a neat veronica: ‘But it would be a mistake to see the issue in these terms. Perfectibility is less a theory than it is an attitude of mind ...’ The Shelleyan bull – and he could be bullish at times – rushes safely by. But Shelley should be treated as he so often was: dangerous. He is dangerously alive still.

Claire Tomalin’s slim book, for all its formal limitations, never has this sense of playing safe. It is intensely alive, intelligent, questioning, responsive and informative at every point. She has carried off the rather stunning task of summarising Shelley’s hectic, shiftless life (and the biographic controversies that still surround it) in some thirty thousand words with remarkable elegance and effect. A vivid, amusing and yet heartbreaking picture of Shelley emerges: poetry, politics, travel, friendships, love-affairs, scandals, mysteries, children, visions – all gracefully combined. The narrative flows with speed and clarity, just occasionally held back by an aptly chosen and unusual quotation. Here, with typical surprise, is Teresa Guiccioli, Byron’s mistress, not on Milord, but on Shelley during that last summer:

    It was said that in his adolescence he was good-looking – but now he was no longer so. His features were delicate but not regular – except for his mouth which however was not good when he laughed, and was a little spoiled by his teeth ... He was also extraordinary in his garb, for he normally wore a jacket like a young college boy’s, never any gloves nor polish on his shoes – and yet among a thousand he would always have seemed the most finished of gentlemen. His voice was shrill – even strident, and nevertheless it was modulated by the drift of his thoughts with a grace, a delicacy that went to the heart ... Perhaps never did anyone ever see a man so deficient in beauty who still could produce an impression of it ... It was the fire, the enthusiasm, of his Intelligence that transformed his features.

The rare touches of interpretative comment that Claire Tomalin allows herself are always shrewd and highly personal. She prefers Peacock of all the close friends, and notes how Hogg was continually jealous of Shelley’s inexplicable success with the women in every household ‘from mistress to maidservant’. She sympathises with Mary’s dilemma, and justly observes the familiar pattern of ‘the benevolent man whose benevolence towards the world outside his family enrages his wife’. After Mary’s breakdown in 1819, she writes: ‘Shelley possessed what Mary did not: a spirit that renewed itself, or at worst, continued to sing even in despair. He had streaks of self-hatred, the bitter self-hatred of the idealist and experimenter with life who sees his experiments fail but cannot become a comfortable apostate. He had suicidal leanings. The lines

Bright reason will mock thee
Like the sun from a wintry sky

express perfectly his wincing reaction to the condemnation of people of good sense.’

She dismisses the politically-motivated shooting incident in North Wales, and cuts smartly through the endless difficulties surrounding Shelley’s ‘adopted’ child at Naples, Elena Adelaide Shelley. Her solution is quite simply that Shelley and Claire – Mary’s step-sister – were lovers in 1818, and Elena was their illegitimate child, whom they decided to leave behind at the Italian Foundling Hospital. I agree with the first part of the thesis, but cannot accept the second: how Claire’s eyes would have flashed at such a decision! ‘Imagine my despair of good!’ said Shelley of the charge ‘that I have committed such unutterable crimes as destroying or abandoning a child – – that my own.’

I wish that the book had given just a little more space to Shelley’s essays: ‘On the Devil’, ‘On Christianity’, ‘On Sculptures in Rome and Florence’, ‘On the Greeks’. Yet Claire Tomalin’s guiding remarks on the poetry are excellent, and I have never seen the lines on the death of Harriet Shelley – ‘The cold earth slept below’ – placed with more just and poignant effect. She also gives an entirely fresh presence to one of Shelley’s almost forgotten later lyrics, ‘Two Spirits: An Allegory’, introducing it with wonderful suggestiveness – a real act of criticism – as a key to his whole life’s endeavour. A word is in order about the 104 illustrations in the book, which include Turner, Bonnington, Samuel Palmer, Goya, a miniature of the bewitching Cornelia Boinville (disturbingly like Lady Caroline Lamb), a sketch-plan by Edward Williams of the interior of the Don Juan boat, showing folding tables, lockers, and ‘Shilo’s library’ skilfully fitted round the bulkhead. Ah, dreams of summer!