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?

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