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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.