Teeth of Mouldy Blue

Laura Quinney

  • The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Volume I edited by Donald Reiman and Neil Fraisat
    Johns Hopkins, 494 pp, £58.00, March 2000, ISBN 0 8018 6119 5

The poems in this volume will not persuade anyone to care for Shelley who does not do so already: they are often bad, sometimes dreadful, juvenile works which Shelley wrote between the ages of 17 and 22. These years, from 1809 to 1814, were the most chaotic of his life; he tried to make his own fate but succeeded chiefly in precipitating a series of disasters. His behaviour alternated between defiance and misgiving. In 1810 Shelley went to Oxford, where he met and beguiled Thomas Jefferson Hogg, and languished over his rejection by his cousin Harriet Grove, who was frightened by the unorthodoxy of his ideas; he was soon sent down for co-authoring, with Hogg, ‘The Necessity of Atheism’ (though he wavered about acknowledging his authorship of the pamphlet); he broke with his family, and fell into a depression; in his loneliness, he persuaded Harriet Westbrook, a pleasant young woman, to elope with him, and then established an unsatisfactory triangulated household with her older sister, Eliza; they wandered about, visiting, among other places, Ireland, where Shelley tried to foment revolution; he fled Harriet and Eliza, partly on the grounds that they were intellectually unsympathetic; he sought a mentor and father substitute in William Godwin, and then alienated him by eloping with his daughter, Mary; he discarded Harriet and their two small children, and in 1816 she drowned herself. His actions were reckless, destructive and poignantly venturesome; they had consequences which darkened his life to the end.

What is remarkable is that this life, so careening and confused, was also characterised by a fixed intellectual tenacity, and a tenacity of craft, which eventually enabled Shelley to write poetry of singular power and originality. The new edition reveals this consistency. In gathering together all his earliest pieces, including some that have been unavailable in standard editions of the collected poetry, Donald Reiman and Neil Fraistat’s meticulously edited volume brings out the aims Shelley had for his verse, and the effects he sought, which remained surprisingly uniform.[*] Largely derivative in form and content, the poems divulge almost nothing of interest about his ideas, but they are more subtly telling: they display his characteristic sensibility, they show something of his intensity and his struggle to find an adequate means of expression for it, and they uncover stylistic designs that he spent roughly six of the ten years of his adult life working to perfect.

The major works in this volume are the first two books of poems that Shelley published – Original Poetry; by Victor and Cazire (1810), Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson (1810) – his broadsheet, The Devil’s Walk (1812), and a fascinating book-length poem he did not manage to publish: ‘The Wandering Jew; or, The Victim of the Eternal Avenger’ (written 1809-10). There are also ‘Ten Early Poems’, most of them harvested from his letters, and a handful of verses from his Gothic novel St Irvyne (1811). This edition does not contain the poems, also written between 1809 and 1814, that Shelley assembled in his projected book of ‘minor poetry’, ‘The Esdaile Notebook’, which will be included in the second volume.

Original Poetry; by Victor and Cazire, which includes some pieces written by Shelley’s sister Elizabeth, is a collection of amateurish lyrics, or ‘songs’, and Gothic fragments, as well as one wholesale plagiarism from Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. The presence of the plagiarised poem, probably added to fill out the volume, makes Shelley’s yearning to establish himself as an author clear. A similar desperation is evident in the various adolescent displays of ‘genius’ that he staged, particularly for the benefit of his susceptible friend Hogg – such as pretending to compose extempore poems that he had in fact written down and memorised. Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson also offers a jumble of lyric and Gothic clichés as well as a bizarre ‘Fragment, Supposed to be an Epithalamium of Francis Ravaillac and Charlotte Cordé’ (the assassins, respectively, of Henri IV and Jean Paul Marat), and a provocative subtitle – ‘Being Poems Found Amongst the Papers of that Noted Female who Attempted the Life of the King in 1786’. The editors suggest that, in spite of these gestures of bravado, Shelley chose to publish under a pseudonym because he was embarrassed by the poor quality of his verse. He seems to have been torn between two species of ambition: he was frantic to publish, but he recognised that what he was publishing embodied only a trace of what he sought.

But he persevered. As a thinker and poet, Shelley was unusually constant. An important instance of this is his fidelity to Gothic themes and motifs, which he never relinquished but rather transmuted. The handling of Gothic imagery in these early poems is obsessive but often bungling. It gives evidence of a fascination with the grim and dramatic strain of Gothicism, but as yet there is no finesse in rendering it. The young Shelley readily stumbles into comedy and bathos, as, for example, in his description of the Witch in ‘The Wandering Jew’:

Inspired and wrapt in bickering flame,
The strange and wild enchantress stood;-
Words unpremeditated came,
In unintelligible flood,
From her black tumid lips – array’d
In livid, fiendish smiles of joy –
Lips, which now dropp’d with deadly dew,
And now, extending wide, display’d
Projecting teeth of mouldy blue.

This is juvenile morbidity of an extraordinary tactlessness; and his early work is peppered with such moments. (‘Death-worms’ appear often.) Yet Shelley did not outgrow his fascination with the grotesque. Instead, he made something grand of it: he found a way of intertwining it with such fierce thought and compelling style that it became an essential component of his authority. The worms in this passage from Adonais (1821) are genuinely frightful:

Peace, peace, he is not dead, he doth not sleep –
He hath awakened from the dream of life –
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings. We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

To call our hopes ‘cold’ and ‘like worms’ is severe; but the pronouncement would seem merely lurid were it not for Shelley’s commanding treatment of rhythm and form.

This new volume tells us most about Shelley’s stylistic aspirations and the challenge they posed to him. Although it wasn’t until he wrote Queen Mab (1813) and some of the poems in ‘The Esdaile Notebook’ that his mature politics were formed (after he read Godwin, in other words), the political philosophy of his juvenile poems is familiar enough. His satirical ballad, The Devil’s Walk, is a charming piece of radical mischief, concerning the alliance of a dandyish Satan with various political and cultural authorities:

A Priest, at whose elbow the Devil during prayer,
Sate familiarly, side by side,
Declared, that if the tempter were there,
His presence he would not abide;
Ah! Ah! thought Old Nick, that’s a very stale trick,
For without the Devil, O! favourite of evil,
In your carriage you would not ride.

We recognise Shelley in the mocking wit of this passage, but the handling of form and rhythm is incompetent. Who would think that someone with such a tin ear could ever compose verse with the rhythmic power and controlled vehemence of The Mask of Anarchy (1819)?

I met Murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him:
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Here Shelley has given the ballad form a curiously taut and suspenseful character. Once again, his rhetorical authority is fired by prosodic skill.

In fact, the clumsy adolescent poet came to master much more intricate forms, such as terza rima and the Spenserian stanza, and not only to master but to transform them. Although his juvenile efforts in this direction are maladroit, they do reveal his purposes. The induction of the ‘Epithalamium of Francis Ravaillac and Charlotte Cordé’ consists of nine-line stanzas rhymed ababcdcdD. Shelley may have invented this form, his editors suggest, because he could not yet cope ‘with composing in the more complexly rhymed Spenserian stanza (ababbcbcC)’. Though his imagery tends to be trite, Shelley did pretty well with the rhythm of his invented form:

‘Tis midnight now – athwart the murky air,
Dank lurid meteors shoot a livid gleam;
From the dark storm-clouds flashes a fearful glare,
It shews the bending oak, the roaring stream.
I ponder’d on the woes of lost mankind,
I ponder’d on the ceaseless rage of Kings;
My rapt soul dwelt upon the ties that bind
The mazy volume of commingling things,
When fell and wild misrule to man stern sorrow brings.

Already it is possible to detect in this passage some of the methods he used later to invigorate the Spenserian stanza: the complex syntax, for example, helps to develop a momentum which drives the stanza towards its epigrammatic conclusion. (Shelley must have chosen this form because he liked the heterogeneous rhythm of the concluding Alexandrine.) By the time he wrote ‘Henry and Louisa’, one of the poems in ‘The Esdaile Notebook’, he had taught himself how to manage the Spenserian stanza, and he gives it an alacrity that was never part of Spenser’s style:

The balmy breath of soul-reviving dawn
That kissed the bosom of the waveless lake,
Scented with spring-flowers, o’er the level lawn
Stuck on his sense, to woe scarce yet awake.
He felt its still reproach, – the upland brake
Rustled beneath his war-steed’s eager prance,
Hastening to Egypt’s shore his way to take,
But swifter hastening to dispel the trance
Of grief, he hurried on, smothering the last sad glance.

The eagerness and swiftness in the verse is meant to mime the subject but Shelley sustains the momentum of the stanza only with some awkwardness. (Byron had the same problem in Childe Harold, which may be why he switched to ottava rima for Don Juan.) And the interposition of the long Alexandrine poses an obstacle to propelling the poem on from stanza to stanza. But within a decade, Shelley had revolutionised the form; he had found a new way to shape it so that it could combine momentum with clarity and concision. It became a medium of unparalleled intensity in Adonais:

In the death chamber for a moment Death
Shamed by the presence of that living Might
Blushed to annihilation, and the breath
Revisited those lips, and life’s pale light
Flashed through those limbs, so late her dear delight.
‘Leave me not wild and drear and comfortless,
As silent lightning leaves the starless night!
Leave me not!’ cried Urania: her distress
Roused Death: Death rose and smiled, and met her vain caress.

The play of form and rhythm in this stanza is noticeably involved, almost paradoxical: the rhyme scheme creates poise and balance while the syntax drives the lines ahead, and yet this formal tension contributes to the imaginative energy. Moreover, Adonais brilliantly exploits the solemnity of the Alexandrine: rather than possessing a merely retarding character (‘at its worst it drags its slow length along,’ Pope said) it is used, again and again, to create a climax of chilling irony. Shelley has found a way to make a meaning out of the odd features of the form, and has so compounded the power of the style and the power of the thought that it is difficult to distinguish between them.

This momentum is a recognised feature of Shelley’s mature verse: William Keach, in Shelley’s Style (1984), calls it ‘Shelley’s speed’. The juvenilia in this volume suggest that it was an effect Shelley sought from the beginning. In ‘The Wandering Jew’, the most accomplished of his early poems, he uses supple syntax and an irregular pattern of rhymes to try to produce it. But, oddly, he wants to create momentum in a passage of landscape description, a frozen tableau:

Fled were the vapours of the night,
Faint streaks of rosy tinted light
Were painted on the matin grey;
And as the sun began to rise,
To pour his animating ray,
Glowed with his fire the eastern skies,
The distant rocks – the far-off bay,
The ocean’s sweet and lovely blue,
The mountain’s variegated breast,
Blushing with tender tints of dawn,
Or with fantastic shadows drest.
The waving wood, the opening lawn,
Rose to existence, waked anew,
In colours exquisite of hue.

The ambition embodied here – to make the landscape leap up, as it were, to startle the reader with antithetical effects – was later brought to fruition in the radiant and terrible opening of The Triumph of Life, in which the awakening of nature has taken on a sinister aspect:

All flowers in field or forest which unclose
Their trembling eyelids to the kiss of day,
Swinging their censers in the element,
With orient incense lit by the new ray
Burned slow and inconsumably, and sent
Their odorous sighs up to the smiling air,
And in succession due, did Continent,
Isle, Ocean, and all things that in them wear
The form and character of mortal mould
Rise as the Sun their father rose, to bear
Their portion of the toil which he of old
Took as his own and then imposed on them.

A dark turn of mind in the later work distinguishes between these passages from 1810 and 1822 respectively; but this turn of mind, this irony, would not have force without Shelley’s prosodic virtuosity – in particular, his skill at entwining long, sinuous sentences and intricate rhyme schemes. With his taste for the Gothic, he discovered how to bring out the drama in the form itself.

Shelley’s poetic development has always been something of a puzzle, but this book may help to explain it. The puzzle is why it took him so long to achieve poetic maturity. It wasn’t until 1814, when he wrote Alastor, or, arguably, 1816, when he wrote ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ and ‘Mont Blanc’, that he produced any decent poems at all, and he was then waylaid for two years writing the tedious, epic-length Revolt of Islam. He didn’t write poetry with sustained success until 1818, at which point, four years before his death, he suddenly began to produce masterpieces. What lies behind these fits and starts? This volume suggests that it was not by the usual means that Shelley came into his own. The dramatic improvement was the result not of a radical change in ideas, conversion to a new aesthetic, or the discovery of a new style or vocabulary, but of an arduous development of prosodic skill that was slow to emerge but crystallised rapidly when it reached a certain stage. From the beginning he was experimenting with the forms and manners at which he came to excel: the narrative and lyrical modes, the different rhyme schemes and stanzaic forms, the varieties of rhetoric and emotion. His style was evolving simultaneously on many fronts. And that must have been why it took him so long, comparatively, to mature as a poet; but it is also why his late work is so fine: he became a stylist of such dexterity that he was able to combine antithetical elements – speed with concision, pathos with irony, subtlety with emotion – in a poetry of unsurpassed, and still unencompassed, sophistication.

[*] Longman is also pubishing a complete Shelley, edited by Kelvin Everest and the late Geoffrey Matthews; the second volume, covering the period from 1817 to 1819, was recently released (879 pp., £95, 1 June, 0 582 03082 x). This comprehensive, accessible text is intended primarily for the use of college students; Reiman and Fraistat’s will be the definitive scholarly edition.