Who Reads Shelley Now?

Who Reads Shelley Now?

Shelley’s star has faded: that ineffectual firebrand who got so tangled up with debts and marital irregularities that his drowning in the Gulf of Spezzia seemed almost prudential. Indeed ‘much chatter about Shelley’ was how the new discipline of English Studies was dismissed by the establishment, and serious Modernists like Eliot had scant time for Shelley’s vapid outpourings. Nor can it be said that entries such as this in Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury (1) have helped much:

I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden;
Though needest not fear mine;
My spirit is too deeply laden
Ever to burthen thine.

Or even this:

I arise from dreams of Thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low
And the stars are shining bright:
I arise from dreams of thee
And a spirit in my feet
Has led me-who knows how?
To thy chamber-window, Sweet!

Just the sort of thing that poetry today tries not to be, even amateur poetry. Regarding The Revolt of Islam (1818), Grierson and Smith (2) remained noncommittal about the verse but added ‘The story itself is the wildest absurdity, combining Shelley’s two invariable motives, a passionate philanthropy and an equally passionate eroticism.’ It is difficult not to smile at the generalization, or at the rueful summary: ‘So Shelley escapes, and will escape always from his insoluble political problems, men being what they are.’

But contemporaries saw the man differently. He was an impenitent philanderer, an atheist, a threat to the social order. (3) Expelled from Eton and then Oxford, he married sixteen-year old Harriet Westbrook, having two children by her before his love of freedom got the better of him and the marriage. In 1814 he eloped a second time with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and Jane Clairmont in tow, settling in Switzerland and then in England again when the money ran out. In 1815 Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine, Mary’s half-sister committed suicide, and Shelley married the future novelist. In 1818, fortified by his grandfather’s legacy, the Shelly family moved to Italy, where both poet and novelist were much absorbed in literary politics and personalities. A son, Percy Florence, was born in 1819, but Shelley himself, always restless, continue sailing about on his schooner (unhappily called ‘Don Juan’) until the craft, caught in a storm, capsized and drowned its owner on 8th July 1822. Even this greatly shortened (indeed bowdlerized (3)) account provides wonderful material for the biographer, but it was not the behaviour expected of an English gentlemen. Hardly surprising then that ‘No poet suffered severer reprobation in his life and none has perhaps evoked more ardent sympathy and admiration in later years than this strange offshoot from an otherwise undistinguished aristocratic family’. (2)

With its ardent republicanism and strange entanglements with women, Shelley’s life was never going to be easy. Those who read astrological charts (others can pass over) will note Pluto in the eleventh house opposite the Uranus, Sun and Venus stellium. Also the twelfth house moon in Pisces, and the opposition of Saturn to Neptune, Jupiter and Mars on the seventh house cup. (7)  Revolutionary first, poet second. (8) Prominence came from Shelley’s family, which had money and position. The deviant opinions originated at Syon House and Eton, where the boys ragged him mercilessly for the odd voice and ever odder views. Once set upon that path, it was inevitable that Shelley would adopt the revolutionary cause in a Europe stirred up by the Napoleonic wars, and associate with the more radical fringe of writers, with Byron, Hunt and the Goodwin circle. More conventional authors like Lamb and Hazlitt thought Shelley’s work was ‘thin sown with profit and delight’, as indeed it was to begin with. Only later would Browning write the just and moving tribute:

Sun-treader, light and life be thine for ever!
Thou art gone from us; years go by and spring
Gladdens, and the young earth is beautiful,
Yet thy songs come not, other bards arise
But none like thee;

Shelley didn’t study other poets for his subject matter. It pressed in on him all the time: the gross inhumanity of man to man, its cruelty, stupidity and unthinking attachment to outmoded institutions. After Waterloo he wrote:

Hark that outcry of despair! ‘Tis his mild and gentle ghost
Wailing for faith he kindled.

After Peterloo came:

Men of England, wherefore plough
For the Lords who lay ye low?

The death of Keats occasioned Adonais, where the extinction of early promise was soon forgotten in more pressing matters: the mystery of death, and the search for a transcending existence.

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments-Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!

That’s hardly a political agenda, but if the concepts sound nebulous and utopian, they’re a good deal more tangible than some of Yeat’s incantations, or the iconography behind Robert Graves’ White Goddess. ‘Some of us have, in a prior existence, been in love with Antigone’, Shelley wrote to John Gisborne, and that Antigone was endlessly reincarnated  in living women, in Harriet Grove, Mary Godwin, Emilia Viviana and perhaps Jane Williams. Personified elements, he explained to Godwin, were ‘minute and remote distinctions of feeling, which could only be bodied forth in remote and impalpable shapes.’ (2)

So, under these intoxications,  the verse poured out. Before his death at 29, Shelley  had written thousands on thousands of lines: five thousand alone in The Revolt of Islam, and then there were the plays (The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound) and the long lyrical poems: Hellas, Adonais and Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. (4) It was all rather overwhelming, or would have been had Shelley been read as avidly as Byron. Fame would come later, with the Victorian poets, and the left-wing political movements of the twentieth century.

What also came subsequently, though it seems a threatened claim today, was Shelley’s reputation for lyricism. Grierson and Smith again: ‘Whatever may be the fate of Shelley’s longer poems, philosophic or would-be philosophic, it is impossible to believe that he will be otherwise regarded as one of the greatest of English lyrical poets.’ And, of The Witch of Atlas: ‘If less masculine than Byron’s, Shelley’s stanzas are not less natural and easy, and infinitely more delicately musical.’ (2) Perhaps not. Readers can make up there own minds by reading the many collections on the Internet, (9-10) but I leave them with two thoughts.

Shelley has to be read like Shelley. Yes, a poetry workshop or even Practical Criticism would find much to query in the following section from Adonais – predictable adjectives, weak construction, a rhapsody that overwhelms or outdistances reason – and no doubt in his once famous lyrics – West Wind, The Sensitive Plant, To a Skylark, Autumn, The Question, Hymn of Apollo and Hymn of Pan –  but fashions change. The nineteenth century did not much care for Shakespeare’s sonnets, and saw Pope’s lines as versified prose. What I called granularity in dealing with Eliot’s work apples here too: we have to know how far to let judgement proceed. Pope requires an ear trained in the music of verse, Shelley less so, and Eliot (and a good deal of free verse today) less so again. That is not a criticism, necessarily: poetry commonly has various excellences.

He lives, he wakes -’tis Death is dead, not he;
Mourn not for Adonais. -Thou young Dawn,
Turn all thy dew to splendour, for from thee
The spirit thou lamentest is not gone;
Ye caverns and ye forests, cease to moan!
Cease, ye faint flowers and fountains, and thou Air
Which like a mourning veil thy scarf hadst thrown
O’er the abandoned Earth, now leave it bare
Even to the joyous stars which smile on its despair!

Secondly, who writes like Shelley today? Our world is no less threatened by wars, economic disparities, gross injustices and political ineptitude, but where is that passionate denunciation and the exhortation to do better? (11) Certainly not in the safe, carefully-constructed and small-minded compositions that are today winning the prizes and reputations. Poetry that doesn’t in some way appeal to the heart is not poetry, I suspect, and certainly not art as the word was commonly understood.


1. The Golden Treasury with Additional Poems by F.T. Palgrave. Collins, 1861/1934.
2. A Critical History of English Poetry by Herbert J.C. Grierson and J.C. Smith. Chatto and Windus, 1944. Chapter 28.
3.  Percy Bysshe Shelley Percy Bysshe Shelley
1792-1822. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/percy-bysshe-shelley
4. English Poetry: A Short History by Kenneth Hopkins. Phoenix House, 1962. 350-62.
5. Percy Bysshe Shelley. Literature Network. http://www.online-literature.com/shelley_percy/
6. Percy Bysshe Shelley. Poetry.org. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/179
7. Horoscope and chart of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Astrotheme.com. http://www.astrotheme.com/astrology/Percy_Bysshe_Shelley
8. If we adopt the analysis argued in Vocations: The New Midheaven Extension Process by Noel Tyl. Llewellyn Publications, 2006.
9. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). http://www.poemhunter.com/percy-bysshe-shelley/
10. The Complete Poetical Works: Percy Bysshe Shelley. http://www.bartleby.com/139/
11. Much politically-motivated poetry is of course being written today – e.g. in the ‘poet’s basement’ of www.counterpunch.org – but seems not too good as poetry. It’s certainly not what the establishment prizes.

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