Archive for December, 2015

What is music? It is a combination of harmonious sounds. What is poetry? It is a symmetrical collection of words. Therefore, they are pleasing through harmony and rhythm. Poetry is much more effective and complete than prose. It stirs more deeply, for it is of a finer composition. . . . . . they affect the heart and spirit.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í Writings on Music – pages 8-9)

. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divinepages 29-30)

'The False Mirror' by René Magritte

‘The False Mirror’ by René Magritte

What makes a poem?

This last set of posts in this sequence will really be just the beginning of another project.

For this project to work first of all I’ll need to have some sense of what makes a good poem for me, one worth not only understanding in its own right but also for learning more, in light of the poet’s life, about the creative process at the highest level.

Once I feel reasonably clear that I can reliably choose the best poems to focus on from my point of view, then I need to check out previous thinking for what I might need to know in devising my own pragmatic and at this stage tentative model.

Once I’ve done that perhaps I can constructively look at a handful of Shelley’s poems for what they can tell me, before I finally attempt to articulate my own model.

Assuming this is the best available approach I have divided my exploratory explanation into four sections:

  1. telling a good poem from a bad one, with some idea of what might be the purpose of lyric poetry in particular – that’s what this post will be about;
  2. looking at earlier models of creativity – that’s for next time;
  3. looking at three of Shelley’s poems – that’s for next week and will be in two parts; and
  4. a provisional model of creativity – the last post!

Telling a Good Lyric from a Bad One

Before we go any further I need to share a recent realisation. Readers of this blog may remember my rants against ‘brick-wall’ poetry. As I was researching in books from my shelves to help me with this section, I came across two poems.

The first was by William Stafford – not a poet I’d heard of before. His poetry was the focus of a chapter in Where Art & Faith Converge. It was written by Michael Fitzgerald, the editor of the book and a poet I’ve enjoyed reading in the past. The poem in question reads:

At the Bomb Testing Site

At noon in the desert a panting lizard
waited for history, its elbows tense
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.

It was looking at something farther off
than people could see, an important scene
acted in stone for little selves
at the flute end of consequences.

There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
Ready for a change, the elbows waited.
The hands gripped hard on the desert.

Fitzgerald stresses how Stafford’s simplicity, combined with depth and resonance, has made him both popular as well as respected by most, though not all critics. I’ll quote a typical response of the ones I’ve read so far. It’s by Steven M. Molthan and can be found at this link:

In “At the Bomb Testing Site,” Stafford has us contemplate a small lizard that “waited for history, its elbows tense,” This tenseness is something humans ought to feel as well since the existence of nuclear weapons and their life-ending potential is ever present. In the poem, Stafford ascribes to the lizard an almost prophetic quality—it seems to see something is going to happen. “It was looking at something farther off/ than people could see, an important scene…at the flute end of consequences.” The poem brings home the fact that life is something precious and to be made safe. Under an empty sky, there are no guarantees—the poem implies that our choices will preserve our natural existence, or bring its end. “There was just a continent without much on it/ under a sky that never cared less./ Ready for a change, the elbows waited./ The hands gripped hard on the desert.” Keeping a grip on our planet as the panting, tense lizard does is important for the continuance of all life, human and reptilian.

Operation Sunbeam (for source of image see link)

Operation Sunbeam (for source of image see link)

I’ll discuss the second poem in a moment. Why am I bringing this one into the mix?

Well, I feel it raises serious questions about the possible over-simplification of my rant about puzzle poetry, and these questions are going to be relevant here when I come to discuss why I choose certain poems of Shelley’s and not others in my examination of the creative process.

As I explained before, I feel it is legitimate to distinguish between poems and verse. How should I do that though? How does this poem and the next one I am going to discuss help me decide?

The core point is simple. I cannot dismiss the Stafford poem as an irritating puzzle. It’s pretty clear what it’s getting at (though I did, for some reason that is still unclear to me, react against the phrase ‘flute end of consequences.’) Even though the theme is clear, and one I should like because I agree with what it’s saying, I don’t like the poem. I was even tempted, and still am, to feel it is not really a poem.

Why should this be so? I made myself question this because I respect Fitzgerald both as critic and poet, and if he likes a poem when I don’t something needs explaining.

In meditation, an explanation came to mind. I don’t like the absence of music in this poem. It’s a left-brain poem, in that sense, for me. It seems flat and prosaic. It triggers my prejudice against the minimalist in modern art of all forms, but which I find most irritating in poetry, my favourite art form after song. Even the imagery does not resonate for me. The poem has a purely intellectual impact and only tells me what I already know. It does not create an experience from which I learn something new: there is no ‘solving for the unknown’ to use Robert Hayden‘s take on Auden’s idea of the algebra of a poem (cf From the Auroral Darkeness: the Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden – page 17).

In an article in the Washington Post Charles quotes Mark Edmundson who nails it for me:

In “Poetry Slam, or, The Decline of American Verse,” Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, upbraids our bards for being “oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning . . . timid, small, in retreat . . . ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn.” That’s just for starters.

“Their poetry is not heard but overheard,” he laments, “and sometimes is too hermetic even to overhear with anything like comprehension.”

And he names the names. After studying Paul Muldoon for years, Edmundson complains that he still has “barely a clue as to what Muldoon is going on about.” Jorie Graham is “portentous.” Anne Carson may be Canadian, but that’s no defense; her verse “is so obscure, mannered, and private that one (this one, at least) cannot follow its windings.” John Ashbery “says little” in his “perpetual hedging.”

“One can’t generalize about it all,” Edmundson warns, before generalizing about it all in a nuclear assault that leaves no poet standing.

Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Frank Bidart, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky — they’re all brought into Edmundson’s office for a dressing down. Their poems “are good in their ways,” he concedes. “They simply aren’t good enough. They don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.”

I can now recognise that Stafford’s lyric will appeal to many readers in our machine-minded age. It may even really be a poem to whose beauty and power I am blind. But I don’t think I am ever going to like such poems, nor are they therefore going to change my sensibility or raise my consciousness as I re-read and reflect upon them.

This clarifies for me that it is not simply the puzzle of a poem that repels me. Both left-brain and right-brain poems can be puzzling. I just don’t like left-brain poems, puzzling or not.

Left-brain readers may wish to bail out at this point.

In addition, for me, left brain poems tend to take puzzling to a cryptic extreme, as I have already discussed at length on this blog (see earlier links). Right-brain poems can puzzle me, but the music keeps me engaged, and the mystery gradually dissolves because the problem posed by the poem can be solved by the experience the poem creates rather than by the crossword exercise of the intellect.

In the end, left-brain poems may not be poems at all, and in many cases, may not even be verse.

Sandra Lynn Hutchison

Sandra Lynn Hutchison (for source of image see link)

A Test Case

What helped me come to this conclusion was reading a poem by Sandra Lynn Hutchison in this same book (page 198) called The Art of Nesting. To convey a sense of what it is like I’ll quote the opening stanza:

Commit yourself to transience, yet stay conversant with the world
of things. Choose a leaf – aspern, birch, willow – small enough to weave
into the fabric until winter is over and the idea hatches, vibrant with
trilling life. It will appear mysteriously as the fuzzy dawn of feathers.

The poem’s focus is again not human but in this case a bird not a lizard. It’s unusual perspective upon the cycle of life and its empathic engagement with the bird’s point of view is, for me, made more powerful by the music of the lines. Because it is giving advice to the bird, readers also cannot help but feel the advice is directed at them as well in some way. The connection with nature it creates, for me at least avoids sentimentality, except for the word ‘sweet’ in line14, and is just as crucial to develop as the awareness Stafford seeks to evoke.

(I also think the word ‘indigent’ in line 12 could be a publisher’s error: I’m fairly sure it should be indolent. It reads: ‘Look, some clippings lie below/on the lawn where someone, too indigent to do the work, left them.’ Not the poet’s fault, that one, I suspect.)

For me, Hutchison’s is a right-brain poem, of the kind I will tend to choose when I am seeking to understand creativity. Whether the processes and triggers of these two kinds of poetry are the same I will probably never know. Perhaps the factors I will be eliciting will generalise to both. Given my scepticism about whether left-brain poems are poems at all, I doubt it.

A Final Legup 

I have been further helped along my path of understanding by Mark Edmundson’s thinking.

Gordon Kerr drew my attention to his existence by flagging up Edmundson’s recent book via his FB page about the arts. I investigated further on the web as the book was not immediately available.

Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out what he wants in a lyric poem:

We might say that three qualities are necessary to write superb lyric poetry. First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress sense, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. She must be versed in irony; she must have control of tone. But there is more — a second requirement. She must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. She must burn to attack some issue, must want to unbind a knot, tighten it, or maybe send a blade directly through its core.

Given these powers — the power of expression and the power to find a theme — the poet still must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all. When these three qualities — lyric gift; a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition (which one might also call courage) — come together, the results can be luminous.

He laments the limitations of most current lyric poetry: ‘What is a poem now? It is, to speak very generally, a moment of illumination. . . . [Poems now] don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.’

And as for what the poet we have been examining would hope for, well that’s almost completely out of bounds: ‘Poets now would quail before the injunction to justify God’s ways to man, or even man’s to God. No one would attempt an Essay on Humanity. No one would publicly say what Shelley did: that the reason he wrote his books was to change the world.’

He fulminates powerfully against what he regards as the current habit of ‘hedging,’ which he feels is the ruination of a poem:

Sylvia Plath may or may not overtop the bounds of taste and transgress the limits of metaphor when she compares her genteel professor father to a Nazi brute. (“Every woman adores a Fascist.”) But she challenges all women to reimagine the relations between fathers and daughters. The poet-prophet, says Northrop Frye, may do many things, but he never hedges. From the point of view of the reader who hopes occasionally for prophecy, Ashbery’s work is a perpetual hedging.

If I now throw into the mix Shelley’s recommendation for the purpose of great poetry, I may well have all the criteria I need to guide my choice of great lyrics (Shelley – from the Preface to The Cenci):

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

Basically then I will be looking for consciousness-raising alongside Edmundson’s poetic triad: ‘the power of expression’ (for me that includes music appropriate to the meaning), ‘the power to find a theme,’ and ‘ambition’ in his sense of those words.

My edition of ShelleyDoes Shelley Qualify?

Shelley unarguably emphasised music in his poetry. Ann Wroe proves this by quoting from his notebooks (page 245-46):

In the ordinary way of composition – if there was, with Shelley, any ordinary way – his ear was for rhythm first. He found the metre, then the rhymes, leaving gaps, as was necessary, when words would not come. . . . . . Testing a metre, he would often mark it as small lines on the page, |||||||, set out imperiously at the start like the tick of a metronome. He . . . . made them into a hum:

Ham, Humb um haumb haum, aum

na na, na na na na / na

or again (playing with the rhythm of ‘Ah time, oh night, oh day’ and dreaming of Emelia, who was writing in the notebook with him),

Ni na ni na, na ni

Ni na ni na, ni na

Oh life o death, o time

There was no doubt he often chose deeply important themes and he certainly did not lack ambition and was very concerned to change the way people thought. He would seem a very good candidate therefore to test whether this combination of characteristics can create great lyric poetry. Assuming it does, I can then perhaps begin to unravel what contextual conditions are most conducive to eliciting such poetry and what definable processes are involved.

Some Caveats

I perhaps need to spell out that consciousness raising is not the same as preaching. Didactic verse is not poetry, in my opinion. And this cuts both ways. A religious poet should not moralise, for if she does the poem dies. Similarly, even if a poet sees life as apparently meaningless chaos, that does not mean that he is justified in calling polemics, which mimic that vision, poems. That’s a form of indirect didacticism just as unwelcome as a religious moralising.

Life is light and dark, order and apparent chaos. Art should capture the blend not select only one end of the spectrum for representation. To capitulate to human destructiveness, for example in response to war, by replicating only the discord and dissonance, as I feel Vaughn Williams did in his symphonies written in reaction to World War II, abdicates the role of art in counterbalancing the darkness with the possibility of light.

Last of all I perhaps need to explain why I am ignoring Shelley’s dramatic poetry and will, in any subsequent posts on these issues, neglect epic and dramatic poetry. I am playing to my relative strengths. I write lyrics, albeit minor ones in comparison. But at least I know something of what it feels like from the inside. Epic and dramatic poetry is completely beyond my powers, however much I may admire it. I therefore think my judgement is more likely to be correct in my examination of lyrics. So, that’s why I’ll be focusing on lyric poetry.

So what do other people feel creativity is? More on that next Monday.


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Wakeup Time v4

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[In art] what is important is not only the subject matter but also the way it is treated; not only the cognitive and emotional content manifest in the work of art, but also, and especially, the effect such content is intended to have on the knowledge and the feelings of the participant.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

In the last post I focused mainly on the Mask of Anarchy, and concluded that Shelley manages to avoid the trap of painting only in black, without selling out the trauma that triggered the poem. The stanza form makes the message accessible. The figure of Hope, without in my view becoming sentimental, counterpoints the nightmare. And, most brilliantly, given where Shelley’s personal violence and previous politics might have led him, he depicts the power of non-violent resistance. This makes the work far greater than the man.

Ode to the West Wind

At about the same time as he completed this superb protest poem, another of his great poems was incubating, according to Holmes in his biography (page 546):

Shelley went for walks along the banks of the Arno thinking of . . . . his own exile, his ‘passion for reforming the world,’ his apparent impotence to help the downtrodden people of England, the disasters of his private life and inevitably, at 27, the beginning of the end of his youth.

His hair was already becoming streaked with grey, according to Anne Wroe a possible symptom of syphilis. It is perhaps not surprising then to see the appeal of autumn as a symbol of his declining condition and his deep need for a powerful force to lift him out of his despondency. The climax of the The Ode to West Wind fuses these two aspects:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

In this poem, I feel, Shelley has managed to curb his tendency to over-wrought diction, which mars so much of his poetry, without selling out the intensity of his feeling and the exaltation of his vision. Also, he has been more successful, as a result, in pitching his imagery at a deeply resonant level. For example, at first sight the idea of ‘dead thoughts’ seems inherently despairing and negative, until you see the comparison with dead leaves, whose death is precisely what is necessary to fertilise new growth. There is a sense of Shelley’s willingness to sacrifice himself in this process, but he does not rub our noses in it in the self-aggrandising way we see so often elsewhere in his poetry. It may be no coincidence that this poem follows on from the risk he took in trying to get The Mask of Anarchy published. (I will be returning to a closer analysis of both these poems in a later post.)

It will come as no surprise to readers of my blog that I find his use of the word ‘hearth’ particularly rich in implications. It contains the words ‘art,’ ‘heart’ and ‘earth’ within it, as I have explained elsewhere. As this was a poem I read often in my late teens, I now find myself wondering whether the core image in the dream I had in my 40s of the hearth, which was so important to my understanding of spiritual processes, was first planted by Shelley.

1 Earth Heart alone

For source of image see link

Elusive Inspiration

I will skate over another long poem – Peter Bell the Third – even though it does have some powerful passages. It is too uneven, and therefore ultimately unsuccessful, to be included here, where I am focusing exclusively on his more powerful poems for what they might reveal about the creative process at its best.

Holmes’s commentary on this period is relevant (page 556):

The astonishing speed and range of his creative output, which had now run in an unbroken curve from 6 September when he first received news of Peterloo, until 5 November, embracing such widely different genres of poetry and prose, and simultaneously throwing off a comet’s tail of ballad fragments and songs, suggest a state of exultant energy and vision, a consciousness of formidable active power that is difficult to conceive in ordinary terms.

He amplifies on this (page 569):

Like the great creative efforts of 1812 and 1817 – which were, equally, responses to political and social crisis in society – the effort of 1819 pushed forward the range of Shelley’s literary powers. It established in his mind more mature conceptions both of the actions and sufferings of other men, and of his own. In artistic terms the greatest gains were in economy and intensity of style.

Ann Wroe makes the astute observation that (page 92) ‘he could not will or control the poetic power, and when it lapsed he was merely a man again.’ What I would very much wish to be able to define, are the factors that connect him to this power so that his work resonates at a higher level than his more workaday verse. This would help me understand better the difference between poetry and verse: they can sometimes, to a cursory glance, appear the same, but repeated exposure reveals the former to penetrate reality far more deeply than the latter.

It was Erich Fromm who alerted me to the distinction between two kinds of stimuli. In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, having discussed simple stimuli, which is the common usage of the term stimulus and means a trigger to reaction, he explains that there is another kind of stimulus (page 269):

. . . . one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, and landscape, music, or a loved person. None of these stimuli produce a simple response; they invite you, as it were, to respond by actively and sympathetically relating yourself to them; by becoming actively interested, seeing and discovering ever-new aspects in your ‘object’… by becoming more awake and more aware.

He unpacks some of the implications of this distinction (pages 269-70):

Stimuli of the first, simple kind, if repeated beyond a certain threshold, are no longer registered and lose their stimulating effect. . . . Activating stimuli have a different effect. They do not remain the same; because of the productive response to them they are always new, always changing: the stimulated person… brings the stimuli to life and changes them by always discovering new aspects in them.

When ‘poetic power’ is present we have activating stimuli which can change our awareness and which repay revisiting: when it is absent there is unlikely to be any such effect. In the final group of posts I will be exploring this issue in greater depth, though it will mean digressing into a discussion of the novel’s capacity to promote empathy as well as exploring the difficulties of distinguishing between a poem that is merely a simple stimulus and therefore probably only verse, and a poem that is an activating one, and therefore poetry in the best sense of that word.

I bet you’re looking forward to that discussion.

Sir Philip Sidney (for source of image see link)

Sir Philip Sidney (for source of image see link)

A Defence of Poetry

After the end of this period comes A Defence of Poetry, which Holmes (page 642) regards as something of an anthology of his earlier prose writing. A well known antecedent is Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry. The Wikipedia article acknowledges his influence on Shelley and beyond, and summarises his message:

In an era of antipathy to poetry and puritanical belief in the corruption engendered by literature, Sidney’s defense was a significant contribution to the genre of literary criticism. It was England’s first philosophical defense in which he describes poetry’s ancient and indispensable place in society, its mimetic nature, and its ethical function.

One of the most recent descendants is Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry, where he speaks of (page xvii) how poetry can bring ‘human existence into fuller life.’

This may not seem consistent with a strong desire to change the world in some particular way (page 2):

[Poetry] offers a response to reality which has a liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit, and yet I can see how such a function would be deemed insufficient by a political activist. For the activist, there is going to be no point in envisaging an order which is comprehensive of events but not in itself productive of new events. . . . . They will always want the redress of poetry to be an exercise of leverage on behalf of their point of view.

He sets an important criterion for the reality that poetry seeks to capture (page 7-8):

Poetry . . . whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and of which it is generated. . . . . As long as the co-ordinates of the imagined thing correspond to those of the world we live in and endure, poetry is fulfilling its counterweighting function.

Shelley stands at a point of time approximately halfway between these publications. Similar to Sidney, he continues to see (page 642) ‘the function of poetry as a moral and political one, rather than as a purely literary one,’ and defines the moral function of poetry as (page 643) putting ‘himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.’ He sees poetry as strengthening that function.

Shelley draws a distinction which anticipates Iain McGilchrist, in a way (page 645):

The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world has for want of the poetic faculty proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world.

Approaching his End

Interestingly, when it came to Shelley’s reaction to the death of Keats in Italy from consumption, his ability to empathise with the reality of Keats’s situation was deeply flawed (page 648):

It is transparent . . . that Shelley was not thinking in any realistic way about Keats’s reaction to any review of 1818, but rather of his own reaction to the quarterly attack on himself in 1819.

His total lack of interest at this same time in the situation of his own children by Harriet points in the same unfeeling direction.

Writing to Claire at the time of the composition of Adonais, he explained (page 656) that:

. . . .  in writing poetry he found the only real form of mental relief which lifted him above ‘the stormy mist of sensations.’

I won’t be dwelling on this poem here, not only because of its flawed empathy, but also because, while I do not I agree with Holmes’s dismissive description of it as mannered and pompous (page 657), its unevenness raises too many doubts in my mind about its overall quality. I need more time before I can come to a measured assessment.

Concerning what poetry was for him, he said something revealing at this time, which I have also quoted in an earlier post (page 659):

‘The poet and the man are two different natures,’ he explained . . . ‘though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other.’

The best poetry of this period comes under the heading of Pisan Poems though I am not sure at this point what exactly triggered them and therefore am unclear how they might help clarify my current theme.

This is where my rather rapid overview of his poetic output comes to an end and I now face the daunting task in the next set of posts of integrating what I have learnt into my working model of the creative process so I can test it out on other writers. I’ll probably stick to writers because I understand the written arts better than the others, though I don’t necessarily value them more.

Because we are now hitting the Christmas period and the level of interest in my blog declines at this time, I plan to begin posting this last set of articles on this topic after Christmas and probably continuing them into the New Year.

Did I hear a sigh of relief?

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Fracking in North Dakota. ‘You’ve got to stop fracking right away (in fact, that may be the greatest imperative of all, since methane gas does its climate damage so fast).’ Photograph: Les Stone/Corbis

Fracking in North Dakota. ‘You’ve got to stop fracking right away (in fact, that may be the greatest imperative of all, since methane gas does its climate damage so fast).’ Photograph: Les Stone/Corbis

Sadly, I feel a Guardian article earlier this week by  has hit the nail on the head. What has been agreed sets too slow a pace. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

With the climate talks in Paris now over, the world has set itself a serious goal: limit temperature rise to 1.5C. Or failing that, 2C. Hitting those targets is absolutely necessary: even the one-degree rise that we’ve already seen is wreaking havoc on everything from ice caps to ocean chemistry. But meeting it won’t be easy, given that we’re currently on track for between 4C and 5C. Our only hope is to decisively pick up the pace.

In fact, pace is now the key word for climate. Not where we’re going, but how fast we’re going there. Pace – velocity, speed, rate, momentum, tempo. That’s what matters from here on in. We know where we’re going now; no one can doubt that the fossil fuel age has finally begun to wane, and that the sun is now shining on, well, solar. But the question, the only important question, is: how fast.

To put it in slightly more familiar terms, think about deciding that you’re going to run a marathon. Any healthy person can learn to do it as long as they set a very relaxed pace – in fact, there’s a whole club of people who just happily run slowly. Their leader, John Bingham, may be the most popular running writer of our time, with books like No Need for Speed and Marathoning for Mortals. The average finishing time for the Los Angeles marathon: five hours and 15 minutes.

But in the case of the climate talks, that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about going fast. Limiting the temperature increase to 1.5C would be like setting a new world record (which is two hours and two minutes); even managing to hold it to 2C would be like running a marathon way under three hours, something only 2% of marathoners ever accomplish. “Running a marathon is hard,” running writer Mark Remy has written. “Doing it in less than three hours is really hard. No, I mean hard. Like really freaking hard.”

Translated into carbon terms: you don’t get to go drilling or mining in new areas, even if you think it might make you lots of money. The Arctic will have to be completely off limits, as will the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming. The pre-salt formations off Brazil, and the oil off the coasts of north America too.

You’ve got to stop fracking right away (in fact, that may be the greatest imperative of all, since methane gas does its climate damage so fast). You have to start installing solar panels and windmills at a breakneck pace – and all over the world. The huge subsidies doled out to fossil fuel have to end yesterday, and the huge subsidies to renewable energy had better begin tomorrow. You have to raise the price of carbon steeply and quickly, so everyone gets a clear signal to get off of it.

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A painting of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile

A painting of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile

. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

At the end of the previous post I noted that Holmes, in his biography, points forward to events that may thrust Shelley further on. He feels that Shelley had suffered much in order to become capable of such an achievement as Julian & Maddalo, though sadly more suffering was yet to come for him and all those close to him, as the episode involving Elise and the birth of Elena, explored in an earlier post, testifies.

At the same time as all this, a subtler thread begins to run more saliently through the pattern of his thoughts concerning violent revolution (page 350). He saw that revolution ‘could overreach itself’ and easily replicate the model of the French Revolution, where anarchy gave way to military dictatorship. This was the seedbed for his maturing perspective that asked the question (page 382-83) ‘Can he who the day before was a trampled slave suddenly become liberal-minded, forbearing, and independent?’ He was coming to realise that fundamental changes in society could only result from ‘the systematic efforts of generations of men of intellect and virtue.’ Women as well, I would now add of course.

It was during this period (page 430) that Shelley began to make systematic translations from the Greek of Plato, something that was ultimately to influence his poetry.

In terms of Shelley’s poetry Holmes next focuses at length on Prometheus Unbound. His comments suggest that I need to look more carefully at this poem also. Most particularly one comment (page 491) struck a chord:

There is a sense in which the whole action is metaphysical rather than physical, and in which the setting of the drama is not so much the universe at large but the dome of a single human skull.

Through this medium he examines psychological, political or modern scientific meanings (page 492). I am still feeling that Shelley has regressed to the stylistically overwrought. I will have a closer look at some point, but at present I feel more attracted to Holmes’s analysis of the poem’s significance than to the language of the poem itself as he quotes it. For instance, Holmes claims (page 504) that Shelley is arguing for love as a force which ‘forms the unity of mind which Shelley believed could alone produce the great scientist, the artist, the doctor, the architect and the law-giver. The divided nature is healed.’ Even Holmes finds the third act a disappointing failure.

We can also skate over The Cenci, his next long poetical expedition, another drama that fails to deliver. He aimed (page 516) to make the events of the play be ‘as a light to make apparent some of the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart.’ Holmes’s verdict (page 525) is that ‘the coarse melodrama of Shelley’s stage writing is painfully evident, and from a literary point of view The Cenci remains almost entirely a pastiche of Shakespearean and Jacobean drama.’

The Mask of Anarchy, on the other hand, pulled me in immediately. Reading this now serves to remind us both of the madness our own country has had to travel through to reach this point of relative sanity, and also of how close we always have been to terror of some kind. That we now stare uncomprehendingly at the Middle East, as though we could never commit such atrocities, shows a dangerous blindness to our own history and our own potential.


The trigger for The Mask of Anarchy was what came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre which occurred at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, England, on 16 August 1819, when cavalry charged into a peaceful crowd of 60,000–80,000 that had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. A demonstration was organised to be addressed by the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt. Shortly after the meeting began local magistrates called on the military authorities to arrest Hunt and several others on the hustings with him, and to disperse the crowd. Cavalry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, and in the ensuing confusion, 15 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.

The Mask of Anarchy, never published in his lifetime, was Shelley’s response to this outrage. It was 12 days in the writing. Holmes unpacks its subliminal origins (page 352):

His images are drawn recognisably from almost all of his previous political poems, right back to The Devil’s Walk, and the reader has the sense of a mass of unconsciously prepared material leaping forward into unity at a single demand.

He quotes the main opening lines. They are so powerful it is worth sharing them all here, I feel.

I met Murder on the way–
He had a mask like Castlereagh–
Very smooth he look’d 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 humanhearts to chew,
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon[1], an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell;

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by, them.

Clothed with the Bible as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth[2] next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile rode by.

And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.

My edition of Shelley

It is revealing of even the more recent situations under which this poem has been printed or published that my own pre-1961 copy (see picture above), and the version I consulted on the web, have the following censored rendering of one stanza, a chilling echo of the conditions under which the poem was originally composed:

Clothed with the * * as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like * * * next, Hypocrisy,
On a crocodile rode by.

I could only fill in the gaps without further research because Holmes, Wroe and my Blackwell edition had done so.

The poem introduces the sinister figure of Anarchy.

Last came Anarchy; he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

Holmes unpacks the exact implications of this figure in the narrative of the poem (page 534):

Shelley meant that Anarchy, a savage god outside any human law, is already the idol of the government’s train; he could easily become the leader of the people too.

Hope is what holds him in check. As a result Anarchy is thwarted.

Perhaps the most important insight of all is introduced after that. The oppressed are addressed by Hope as being capable of the one truly effective method of opposition to tyranny: passive resistance. She exhorts them (page 536):

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms, and looks which are
Weapons of an unvanquished war.

Apart from caution concerning the obvious dangers of publishing so radical a work at such a sensitive time, another reason Leigh Hunt decided against publication appeared to be (page 540) that ‘Shelley’s belief in passive resistance was incompatible at that time with massive democratic demonstrations.’ Shelley’s decision to exile himself in Italy did not help, and this was not only work of his that went unpublished at this time.

What impresses me so much about this poem, which I have come now to regard as one of his greatest, is not just how much it anticipates the protest songs I grew to love in my early twenties, but also how Shelley’s horror at what happens does not cause him to descend into dissonance and obscurity. It also sheds powerful light on what Shelley meant by the idea of the ‘phantom’ in the sonnet I quoted earlier in this sequence.


Goya’s ‘El tres de Mayo’ (for source of image see link)

What troubles me a lot about the art of our times is that the horrors we have witnessed have led art too often to capitulate to the chaos and produce a form of music, poetry, painting, drama, film and so on that is ugly and ultimately meaningless.

Take for example, Vaughn Williams, a composer whose early works I love. To do justice to the horrors of the Second World War, he introduced what I experience as an all-encompassing dissonance into his later symphonies that ultimately repels me from the experience of listening to them. He provides no perspective on the darkness.

Even King Lear, for all the madness and cruelty it contains, has moments of deep compassion and great elegiac beauty; also a sense of the order that needs to be reinstated frames the action.

It seems to me that the greatest art weighs the dark side of the human predicament against the light that is also inherent in our nature. When a work of art succumbs completely to the darkness it betrays its purpose: it is not then enough to say that something positive is implicit in using a medium to convey this darkness symbolically, that this creativity in itself preserves the balance. When any kind of structure and harmony has been completely replaced by discord and disorder, we have simply made a literal representation of one aspect of reality and implied that this is all there is. This may be fine for a number of short lyrics in a collection of lyrics, where the despair and chaos of some lyrics is counterpointed by other more positive poems. Longer or larger works of art such as novels, plays, symphonies and such need to contain elements of both dark and light.

Shelley manages to avoid the trap I describe without selling out the trauma that triggered the poem. The stanza form makes the message accessible. The figure of Hope, without in my view becoming sentimental, counterpoints the nightmare. And, most brilliantly, given where Shelley’s personal violence and previous politics might have led him, he depicts the power of non-violent resistance. This makes the work far greater than the man. Great art – though I’m not saying it’s faultless – can come from a flawed human being.

This makes me feel that Ludwig Tuman’s resistance to some kind of glib reductionism, such as either the artist must be perfect for the art to be great or all great artists are broken souls, is absolutely justified.

In the final post of this sequence I hope to explore briefly some of Shelley’s late poetry and try to draw some tentative conclusions before looking at possible models in the final post.

[1] John Scott, Baron Eldon, Lord Chancellor. He had on 27 March 1817 deprived Shelley of access to his two children by Harriet Westbrook, so this was a personal score he was settling rather than one directly related to Peterloo.

[2] Henry Addington, created Viscount Sidmouth in 1805, and Home Secretary in 1819. He applauded the Peterloo Massacre in the House of Commons.

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Mont Blanc (for source of image see link)

How is it possible for a person who simply sets words to paper, who plucks a string or dabs colour on a canvas, to play… a remarkable role in the spiritual life of man? The key lies in the fact that art has a direct and real effect on the human soul.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 81)

At the end of the previous post it was clear that Shelley had still a lot to learn both as an artist and as a man.

A Breakthrough

What can we learn about how his poetic faculty developed? I’ll skate over his early efforts, such as Queen Mab and focus on the points at which there appeared to be breakthrough in his work. For example, Holmes expresses the feeling in his thorough biography (page 288):

In the effort to face his certain aspects of himself, his attempts and failures to set up constant and happy relations with those around him, he made a breakthrough into a new kind of reflective writing.

Holmes is referring here to ‘Oh, there are spirits of the air.’ Though the published dedication is to Coleridge, Holmes feels Shelley is talking to himself. This would not be the only example of Shelley’s choosing to distance himself from the directly personal content of his writing and disguise its relevance to him from the eyes of others by such a subterfuge.

While I find the style of the poem strained and overwrought, there are clearly moments of intense insight almost successfully captured. For instance, Shelley exclaims:

Still dost thou hope that greeting hands,
Voice, looks, or lips, may answer thy demands?
. . . . Did thine own mind afford no scope
Of love, or moving thoughts to thee?

As this biography progressed and the quality of the poetry improved, there seemed a clear pattern: grappling with his personal challenges fuelled the insights that sparked the better poems. This was further facilitated by certain external triggers that were not necessarily stressful. We will see this, for example, when Shelley engages with Byron at length for the first time.

Holmes also sees another dynamic at work. When Shelley was involved in self-mocking social interactions (page 292), the ‘combination of public joking and private poetic meditation can be seen to recur as a pre-creative condition.’

At the same time Shelley appeared to be developing, somewhat ahead of his time (page 295), ‘the notion of an objective psychology’ and used dream analysis as a tool, though he continued to find it difficult ‘to analyse himself, to follow the stream to its source.’

Shelley described the state of mind, which for him connected self-understanding and creativity (page 298):

Those who are subject to the state called reverie feel as if their nature were dissolved into the surrounding universe, or as if the surrounding universe were absorbed into their being.

In the second long poem of his life, Alastor, he attempted to create a picture (page 300) ‘of a developing psychological state.’ He uses scenes and landscapes to convey mental states. But we are still a long way from the poetic achievements of his relative maturity, the ones I want to focus on the most.

His experiences in the Alps contributed to his writing poetry that further developed his thinking. His poem Mont Blanc (page 341) explores ‘three levels of human consciousness,’ namely ‘human imagination, material phenomena and . . . hypothetical divinity.’ For Shelley ‘the natural world held no other intelligent divinity except the mind of man.’

My edition of Shelley

My copy of Shelley’s Poetry, bought in 1961

Shelley & Byron

It was in Venice in 1819, as a result of Shelley’s deepening relationship with Lord Byron, that Holmes feels we begin to see appearing the first of Shelley’s masterpieces (page 449): Julian and Maddalo.

I must admit, at this point, that I had never even heard of this poem. Looking at my first copy of Shelley, bought more than fifty years ago, Julian and Maddalo is one of three long non-satirical poems not marked as read. My exploration of Shelley had stalled at the earlier Revolt of Islam, after feeling moved by Ode to the West Wind, impressed by two of his sonnets – Ozymandias and England in 1819 – and finally frustrated by the strained rhetoric of Adonais. I went back to Byron for a while, before settling my affections on Wordsworth, to some extent, and on Coleridge more whole-heartedly.

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Holmes explains the characters and impetus of the poem (page 450):

Maddalo [Byron] is a philosophic pessimist and cynic, who pretends to believe that most men are mere sheep and that all men are at the mercy of chance and circumstance and their own passions. Julian [Shelley] chooses to argue as a progressive and an optimist, believing that men’s circumstances can be changed, that society is capable of continuous improvement, and that individuals can in the end command their own faculties and fates.

He quotes the poem to illustrate his point:

Of all that earth has been or yet may be,
All that vain men imagine or believe,
Or hope can paint or suffering may achieve,
We descanted, and I (for ever still
Is it not wise to make the best of ill?)
Argu’d against despondency, but pride
Made my companion take the darker side.

He stops short of the next three brilliant lines:

The sense that he was greater than his kind
Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind
By gazing on its own exceeding light.

The directness of the language, I agree with Holmes, is such a refreshing change from most of his earlier work, as is the accessibility of his insight into character. I am amazed and disappointed that I never knew this poem till now. It is a radical advance. Later he would find that time spent with Byron undermined his poetic productivity, but happily not yet.

Holmes then points towards a central even pivotal episode in the poem (page 455): their encounter with the ‘Maniac.’ He doesn’t quote this passage (lines 358-368) but I find this about the best short section to give an impression of how he is conveying what he is saying:

Believe that I am ever still the same
In creed as in resolve; and what may tame
My heart must leave the understanding free,
Or all would sink in this keen agony;
Nor dream that I will join the vulgar cry;
Or with my silence sanction tyranny;
Or seek a moment’s shelter from my pain
In any madness which the world calls gain,
Ambition or revenge or thoughts as stern
As those which make me what I am; or turn
To avarice or misanthropy or lust.

The combination of power and simplicity is characteristic. In spite of the abstractions, the emotional force and personal meaning is not lost. It is possible that the Maniac’s monologue is excessively long and therefore somewhat out of balance, and that the close of the poem, which refuses to define the exact nature of his end, may be more an indication that Shelley had no more idea than the rest of us about what was going to happen, rather than the sign of a suitably mysterious finale.

Holmes’s analysis of what is going on here is interesting (ibid):

The Maniac is like a dream that visits Julian and Maddalo simultaneously, and some of what he says refers indirectly to their own conscious or waking experience. Rather than a real character of person, he is part of a person, the part which lies below the threshold of consciousness. It is symbolic that he is both found and left asleep by his visitors.

It is important to note here that Ann Wroe, in Being Shelley, very much sees the Maniac as a projection of Shelley alone (page 33):

In Julian and Maddalo… Shelley played two characters made odd, or mad, by their dreams. He was both the serious, idealistic Julian… and a Maniac in the madhouse, demented by lost love, who still sang by moments his beautiful and unbidden songs.

This interpretation is reinforced by Maddalo’s saying that the Maniac spoke as Julian did.

Whichever perspective is true, and I am going with Wroe on this one, given my fascination with the idea of ‘subliminal uprush’ it is intriguing indeed to toy with the possibility that Shelley has explored this explicitly in this poem. I need to read and re-read the poem far more often than I have done to-date before I can comment more on that.

The fascination of the poem does not stop there. It contains ideas concerning the triggers to write poetry (page 456):

Maddalo recalls the power of [the Maniac’s] language, . . . . .
And I remember one remark which then
Maddalo made. He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’

Julian’s reaction is also significant, though he is described as being unable to follow through with his idea of healing the Maniac’s state of mind:

. . . . I imagined that if day by day
I watched him, and but seldom went away,
And studied all the beatings of his heart
With zeal, as men study some stubborn art
For their own good, and could by patience find
An entrance to the caverns of his mind,
I might reclaim him from this dark estate.

Colney Hatch

Colney Hatch Asylum (later Friern Mental Hospital). For source see link.

Progress So Far

The compassionate impulse those lines capture and the understanding of the patient presence that would be required suggests that Shelley’s understanding of the human mind has increased considerably as a result of his painful life experiences at this point. And, what’s equally important, he has learnt how to capture such insights with power and clarity.

I am supposing that life’s tests have taught him the insights, and determined practice of his art has given him the skills.

Whether the inspiration for any particular poem is subliminal, at least in part, is not yet clear. What Holmes clarifies later is that Shelley saw the ‘passion for penetrating into the mysteries of our being,’ as a religious impulse (page 515).

Holmes’s comments are again most helpful here (page 456): ‘The underground cavern or labyrinth was to recur again and again in Shelley’s Italian writing, as an image of the spiritual quest for the truth about oneself.’ He regards Julian and Maddalo (page 457) as ‘perhaps the most subtle . . . . and the most suggestive [of Shelley’s major poems] in terms of psychological analysis.’ It set the standard for him of ‘realistic’ writing. It also revealed a capacity for self-criticism with its emphasis on ‘the values of psychological understanding, self knowledge and personal experience.’

I feel that even with these advances Shelley’s poetry is still falling short of the standard he seems to have set himself in the Preface to The Cenci I quoted in an earlier post:

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

Holmes points to forward to events that may thrust Shelley further on. He feels that Shelley had suffered much in order to become capable of such an achievement as Julian & Maddalo, though sadly more suffering was yet to come for him and all those close to him, as the episode involving Elise and the birth of Elena, explored in an earlier post, testifies.

In the next post I mainly explore one of Shelley’s political poems.

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Resist oppression with justice, oppose tyranny with equity, and respond to bloodthirstiness with loving kindness.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá quoted on 8 May 2015 in a letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of Iran)

As the previous posts have made clear, I hope, I am seeking to understand more deeply the nature of the relationship between the art and the artist who creates it, as well, if possible, as shedding some light on what kind of role contemporary reality has on that relationship. An important aspect of this exploration will be the positive impact of the arts on society, and not only by means of protest songs such as the one above and in previous posts.

I have decided at this point to do this by looking at the art in the light of the artist’s biography.

Almost by accident, and because I came at him initially with very few details about his life or art, I’m going to test out this approach with Shelley. An overview of key developments in his poetry and his thinking will take up the next four posts, before the fifth post moves onto the implications for my own tentative general model.

The Man & his Times

Ann WroeSome Impacts of Early Experience

How his early experiences affected Shelley as an artist is a complex matter to grapple with.

Given what we learned about Shelley’s early life in the second pair of posts, how did things develop for the poet in him as he grew older?

Holmes, in his biography of Shelley, expresses the feeling that (page 64) he was both ‘fascinated and terrified by the workings of his own mind’ and that ‘the secret workings of his own personality and the half-hidden movements of his own mind at a subconscious level were for him an ever-deepening source of imagery, and poetic myth-making.’

Ann Wroe’s thoughtful study, Being Shelleyquotes Shelley’s poems and notebooks many times to illustrate this point. He writes of (page 183) ‘The caverns of the mind,’ which seem ”obscure & shadowy’ or ‘beautifully bright.’ She appropriates his words from the Preface to The Cenci, confident that words he used to explain one of the aspects of religion in Protestant countries could be applied to the poet himself (page 184):

A gloomy passion for penetrating the impenetrable mysteries of our being, which terrifies its possessor at the darkness of the abyss to the brink of which it has conduct of him.

Interestingly, on another important point, as I read the Preface myself, I discovered a passage that is quoted neither by Holmes in his entire book nor by Wroe completely.

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

In this passage Shelley has given me a criterion of his own to help me judge the value of not only his dramatic works but of his poetry as a whole.

In spite of what his contemporaries, and perhaps even Shelley himself in his public persona, saw as his atheism, according to Holmes he seemed to believe (page 65) that ‘the mind and the soul were separate and different entities.’

Coleridge provides what is perhaps one of the most astute comments on the relationship between Shelley, the man, and Shelley, the poet (page 94):

Shelley with a man of great power as a poet… and could he only have had some notion of order, could [he] only have [had] some place to stand, and look down upon his mind, he would have succeeded.

This relates to the caveat that Myer’s had about the poetry of Blake (Irreducible Mind: page 445):

Myers. . . . . regards Blake as an example of strong imagination insufficiently controlled by supraliminal discipline: “throughout all the work of William Blake we see the subliminal self flashing for moments into unity, then smouldering again in a lurid and scattered glow” (Human Personality, vol 1, page 73).

I will need to keep an eye on this issue in relation to Shelley when I come to form my conclusions.

Holmes ShelleyBasically, as Holmes summarised and I quoted in a previous post (page 21):

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile. Here to seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

This instability may account for the uneven quality of his work, especially but not only the early poems.

The Influence of Recent Events on Shelley’s Political Beliefs

Shelley’s political views, in addition to being shaped by his personal background, were also formed against a backdrop of the aftermath of the French Revolution, its subsequent terrifying transformations into various forms of tyranny, and the English recoil from what they were observing from across the channel. William Godwin and his circle (page 122) felt that ‘revolutionary mobs do not in the end bring liberty, but civil war followed by some form of tyranny.’ In the wake of the indiscriminate bloodshed of the French Revolution, and in the face of the apparently irreversible tendency of humanity to spill even more blood since on an industrial scale, much ink has been spilt in countless attempts to explain it.

For present purposes it is perhaps enough to note the contention in Jonathan Haidt’s humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ which suggests that idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Earthly PowersThis powerful idea may have its roots in Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution which, he feels, took on ‘that appearance of a religious revolution which so astonished contemporaries’ (quoted in Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers – page 3), and flowering in Dawson’s simpler version of Eric Vogelin (page 8) when he wrote, ‘this determination to build Jerusalem, at once and on the spot, is the very force which is responsible for the intolerance and violence of the new political order.’

This tendency of idealism to make the ends justify the most abhorrent of means, and humanity’s addiction to making a quasi-religion out of terror as a result, continues to this day, morphing through Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism to the horror of Isis/Daesh right at this moment.

I am fully aware that statisticians can reassure us that we have never had it so good (see link for the full exploration):

In the UK, Matt Ridley has been beating his Rational Optimist drum for years, while Harvard professor Steven Pinker argued persuasively in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that violence is on the decline. Presiding over the field is Hans Rosling, the Swedish professor who is the closest thing statistics has ever had to a rock star. His TED talk The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen has been viewed more than 10m times. Last month the BBC aired a lecture, timed to coincide with new UN development goals (and made with input from Roser), called How to End Poverty in 15 Years. Rosling lectures all over the world to rapturous audiences, making his points with humour, striking visuals and the occasional flash of temper with interviewers who don’t get it.

But we still have a long way to go when you consider the absolute numbers of the dying rather than the percentage they constitute of the world’s population, and that extremism may not be as easily containable in a world where fanaticism could suddenly gain access to technologies capable of killing thousands, and possibly millions in a matter of moments.

Given the escalating responses of the major powers to the slaughter in Paris, it seems to me we might be entering a dangerous zone where revenge can be rationalised as self-defence, and those who raise legitimate questions about this approach can be dismissed as weak, confused or wooly-minded. We may have stepped more deeply into the black and white world of the reptilian brain, and the consequences could be even blacker than we feared.

We should have no difficulty really putting ourselves into Shelley’s shoes as he gazed on a landscape where his own government, as we shall see, could gun down unarmed protestors, and the government overseas had morphed from freedom fighters through totalitarian mass murderers to a one-man dictatorship threatening the whole continent. It is tragically ironic that it is now this same country that has suffered so much so recently from dystopian terror from overseas.

After his return from Ireland and his first entry into the field of anti-establishment politics (page 131), what he had seen there left an indelible impact on his mind and art:

The confrontation with the physical facts of poverty, disease and brute ignorance was an experience which never left Shelley, and they were to fill his best writing with images of macabre force. The issue of violent change was brought forward as a central question in his political thinking.

He was beginning to develop a remarkably advanced view of where society, religion and politics should be heading, though he had further to travel yet. In an 1812 pamphlet to Lord Ellenborough, he wrote (page 155):

The time is rapidly approaching, I hope, that you, my Lord, may live to behold its arrival, when the Mahometan, the Jew, the Christian, the Deist, and the Atheist will live together in one community, equally sharing the benefits which arise from association, and united in the bonds of brotherhood love

At this stage of his life, though, his overall vision was less than impressive. Holmes summarises it (page 201):

What Shelley was preaching came to be understood by his friends, and by his enemies, as a vision of the good life based on atheism, free love, republicanism and vegetarianism: a combination of the enlightened, the millennial and a cranky.

I rather resent the implication there that vegetarianism is cranky and atheism enlightened, but I accept his basic point about Shelley.


Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852) is part of the Tate Gallery collection.

His View of Personal Relationships

According to Holmes, Shelley’s emphasis on love is marred by two very major blemishes (page 207-08):

The first is his blindness to the intrinsic value of constancy in human relations… His second blindness was to the way in which children made a fundamental alteration to the direction and responsibilities of a love relationship

Relating to the first point, in Epipsychidion, the poem that examines his own development, he writes eloquently, though with a kind of superior self-congratulating tunnel vision:

I never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, though it is in the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread,
Who travel to their home among the dead
By the broad highway of the world, and so,
With one chained friend, and perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and the longest journey go.

Sadly ‘he was to pay dearly – and make others pay dearly – for his personal blindness in both these respects.’ His first wife, Harriet, was not the only victim, though perhaps the one who suffered most. Her pain at his abandonment of her, and of their children, which was invisible to him much of the time, drove her eventually to suicide (page 238):

. . . . busy with the excitement of [the planned expedition with his new love and her sister], Harriet’s pain and misery was obviously quite unreal to him.

This was completely typical (page 255) of the ‘total lack of understanding’ or ‘sympathy towards his wife’s feelings’ that he consistently displayed throughout this whole period.

At this stage of his life (page 246) he was espousing ‘wholesale political terrorism and violence’ as the way of ‘liberating and freeing a “civilised” society.’ It would be sometime before he worked his way to a more temperate position.

Clearly at this stage he had neither learnt the lessons of the French Revolution about where the use of violence to achieve positive ends might lead, nor come to understand through pain what others close to him really suffered.

The next post begins to see an uplift in his poetry and in his understanding.

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