… the artist’s inborn talents, developed abilities, innate and acquired qualities of character, personal inclinations, and the degree of spiritual maturity attained at a given point in his life, along with the characteristics he may be assimilated from his national culture, his local culture, and the surrounding geography and climate – all such factors combine to guarantee a dazzling and most attractive diversity in artistic self-expression.
(Ludwig Tulman in Mirror of the Divine page 118)
Perhaps the first thing to do is summarise what seem to be the key issues for Shelley’s career as a poet specifically before closing in on three of his poems.
First of all there are a number of contradictory elements that almost certainly led to significant inner conflict:
- Almost everyone would agree that Shelley’s character had serious flaws, not least his tendency to violence, his lack of empathy and his casual disregard for the debts he owed to people who could ill-afford to incur them. A telling late example of his oblivion to other people’s legitimate concerns comes in Ann Wroe’s account of a boating incident where he took Jane Williams, a close companion, and her two babies, out on the water in a coracle (page 177-78). He was plainly pre-occupied with death as he gazed interminably into the water. Jane did her best to distract him, but when, in the end, he said he could easily discover the meaning of death by rocking the coracle, Jane had the presence of mind to say, ‘No, thank you; not now. I should like my dinner first, and so would the children.’ When they got back safely on land, ‘Shelley seemed unaware that he had said, or done, anything remotely strange.’ The sad irony is that his final possible acts of recklessness in his boat killed not only Shelley himself but also her husband.
- He also had great positive qualities, not least the courage to publicise his idealistic vision of society at a time when to do so was extremely dangerous, even for someone of his privileged background. His attitude towards authority had its roots both in his later fractious relationship with his father, but possibly earlier in what seems to have been his insensitive, even brutal treatment at the hands of most of his teachers.
- In his personal life he was both victim, for example of bullying at school, and victimizer, for instance in his treatment of Miss Hitchener and his first wife, Harriet.
- In his work he wrestled both with forging a language to describe the mind as well as using language to raise political awareness. I don’t think it’s forcing the issue to suppose that he saw fruitful parallels between what he experienced within his mind and what he saw happening in society around him.
Holmes (page 5): ‘All his life, Shelley was to detest violence and the various forms of ‘tyranny’ which it produced. Yet the exceptional violence in his own character, the viciousness with which he reacted to opposition, was something he found difficult to accept about himself.’
The paragraph that summarises the consequences of all this early trauma concludes (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.
Holmes feels that the character of the monster in Mary’s Frankenstein was drawn in part from Shelley and that expressions such as (page 333) ‘ . . . misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous,’ from the monster, capture something of his psychodynamics.
Claire Clairmont, to whom Shelley was closer than to anyone else in the world at that point, wrote in a letter that (page 356) ‘Harriet’s suicide had a beneficial effect on Shelley – he became much less confident in himself and not so wild as he had been before.’ Holmes unpacks this by saying: ‘For Claire, it was Shelley’s recognition of his own degree of responsibility – a slow and painful recognition – which matured him.’
It seems highly likely that the conflicts, by the discomfort of the dissonance they created, pushed him to resolve them, if he could, through poetry. Previous posts have looked at suffering and inner conflict as drivers of development to higher levels of consciousness. It seems likely that a poet would use poetry to help this process. This, in Shelley’s case, was further facilitated by certain external triggers that were not necessarily stressful.
There is also, of course, the separate issue of his temperament, which provided the unstable context for all those conflicts. He was clearly excitable, even at times hysterical, which may have had something to do with his reckless impetuosity. In one single page (169) of her account, Ann Wroe uses the following words to describe him: ‘imperious,’ ‘desperate,’ ‘impetuous,’ and ‘self-willed.’ This perhaps goes some way to explain his rapid shifts of commitment to people as well as to ideas. His intense involvement with today’s soul mate, which drew people to him and caused them to forge strong attachments, could change almost overnight to indifference or even outright rejection. He left a lot of emotional damage in his wake, even though his avowed intention was to harm no one.
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).
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
What he learnt from observing his impact on others may eventually have helped him mellow the initially extreme impatience of his political perspective.
For example (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.
He was also passionately curious about many different areas of human concern, from poetry through psychology and science to philosophy and the translation of classics such as Plato’s Symposium. This seemed to be feeding the subliminal processes connected with his art. [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 what was at the time the controversial issue of his atheism, perhaps the closest we can get is the description of his beliefs in Romanticism, edited by Duncan Wu (page 820):
In truth, Percy’s attitude to God was more complex than the word ‘atheist’ suggests. It is not surprising that the concept was inimical to someone so opposed to an established church not merely complicit, but deeply implicated, in the social and political oppression prevalent in England at the time. On the other hand, he was tremendously attracted to the pantheist life force of Tintern Abbey, and could not resist pleading the existence of a similar power in his poetry. However, he stopped well short of believing in a benevolent deity capable of intervening in human affairs.
In spite of what his contemporaries, and perhaps even Shelley himself in his public persona, saw as his atheism, he seemed to believe (page 65) that ‘the mind and the soul were separate and different entities.’
Shelley’s own prose comment is illuminating (page 639), Epipsychidion:
. . . . is an idealised history of my life and feelings. I think one is always in love with something or other; the error, and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood avoid it, consists in seeking an immortal image and likeness of what is perhaps eternal.
My own sense, for what it’s worth, is that emotionally he believed he was connected to what felt like transcendent forces: intellectually he couldn’t allow himself to entertain the idea that these forces had anything to do with the God his contemporaries believed in.
Similar to Sir Philip Sidney, he continues to see (Holmes – 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.
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.
What I also need to mention is that, in my view, apart from a significant number of relatively short lyrics, his greatest poetry can only be found in a very small number of his longer more ambitious works. That is why the focus of my consideration of his poetry will be on trying to detect what combination of factors came together to create his masterpieces. I am going to assume that the uneven, or even poor quality of his other long poems needs no explanation except that the necessary combination of truly creative factors was absent or at best intermittent and/or that the necessary control of subliminal material was also missing. I have already indicated that I would be avoiding the dramatic poetry and focusing on shorter more lyrical pieces.
For present purposes it seems to me that there are three poems of Shelley’s that probably fall within the criteria I’ve set for great lyric poetry and lie within my competence to assess. They also offer contrasting possibilities in terms of the sources of their inspiration and their relationship to Shelley’s preoccupations.
I recognise that I have made this decision relatively quickly and largely on the basis of secondary sources. I haven’t done what both Holmes and Wroe have clearly done, which is saturated themselves for a long period of time, not just in Shelley’s poetry, but also in all his available notebooks, letters and formal prose. However, I am intending this to be the start of a journey and if I waited until I’ve had time to read all that, assuming I was interested enough in Shelley in his own right to complete such a mammoth task, the first step would probably never be taken.
So, I’m going to blast on anyway. Let’s see if it all stands up to closer inspection. I have the impression, possibly the illusion that I’m heading in the right direction.
I need to look at each of these poems in turn, first in terms of their quality (i.e. musicality, significance, ambition and solving for the unknown) before looking at them in terms of their process of inspiration.
Julian and Maddalo – the Music
First of all, does the music of this poem match its meaning?
I feel there is no doubt that Shelley’s command of music in Julian and Maddalo has greatly advanced:
This ride was my delight. I love all waste
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be;
And such was this wide ocean, and this shore
More barren than its billows; and yet more
Than all, with a remembered friend I love 20
To ride as then I rode;–for the winds drove
The living spray along the sunny air
Into our faces; the blue heavens were bare,
Stripped to their depths by the awakening north;
And from the waves sound like delight broke forth
Harmonizing with solitude, and sent
Into our hearts aërial merriment.
He plays with full and half-rhymes. The language for the most part is simple and direct, but changes syllabic groupings with a lightness of touch and delicate shifts of mood: ‘I love all waste’ with its monosyllables and teasing line break (why would he love waste, for heaven’s sake?) shifts into ‘And solitary places.’ This builds up by the long sounds of ‘waste,’ ‘taste’ and ‘see’ (the latter with its reminder of ‘sea’) to a sense of the ‘boundless,’ which then triggers the brilliant leap into the transcendent desire of ‘as we wish our souls to be.’ I won’t bore you with more probably unnecessary commentary.
He sustains this level for almost all the poem, weaknesses such as ‘aërial merriment’ remaining relatively rare, but perhaps not quite rare enough.
Next, we need to ask, ‘Is the theme a significant one?’
We get a sense from very early on that this poem is not going to be a superficial or trivial one:
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?)
Argued against despondency, but pride
Made my companion take the darker side.
The sense that he was greater than his kind 50
Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind
By gazing on its own exceeding light.
I accept that simply stating that they talked about almost everything of any importance may be no more than an ironic boast, but there are hints that the intention is not only serious, but that we are also in the hands of a poet who could potentially deliver. The astute analysis of the companion’s character and the sardonic tone here, that we know Shelley was able to command and sustain powerfully over the 14 lines of the sonnet Ozymandias, should give us hope that he can hold this level for longer.
Does the poem aspire to lift my consciousness, help me solve for the unknown?
The next development of the poem suggests that the issue of deciding what to believe is at the core of the poem, and is therefore a theme that could potentially be intimately related to lifting levels of consciousness as high as possible:
. . . . said Maddalo;
‘You talk Utopia.’ ‘It remains to know,’
I then rejoined, ‘and those who try may find 180
How strong the chains are which our spirit bind;
Brittle perchance as straw. We are assured
Much may be conquered, much may be endured
Of what degrades and crushes us. We know
That we have power over ourselves to do
And suffer–what, we know not till we try;
. . . . . . . 190
‘My dear friend,’
Said Maddalo, ‘my judgment will not bend
To your opinion, though I think you might
Make such a system refutation-tight
As far as words go. I knew one like you,
Who to this city came some months ago,
With whom I argued in this sort, and he
Is now gone mad,– . . . . .’
The interest of the poem does not stop there. It contains, for example, ideas concerning the nature of the soil of experience from which poetry springs (Holmes – 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.
Holmes (page 457) feels that Shelley had suffered much in order to become capable of such an achievement.
Through the Maniac’s monologue, the poem questions what many of us also question, the reason for our suffering:
‘What Power delights to torture us? I know 320
That to myself I do not wholly owe
What now I suffer, though in part I may.
Alas! none strewed sweet flowers upon the way
Where, wandering heedlessly, I met pale Pain,
My shadow, which will leave me not again.
If I have erred, there was no joy in error,
But pain and insult and unrest and terror;
I have not, as some do, bought penitence
With pleasure, and a dark yet sweet offence . . .
I accept that the abstractions Shelley litters across the last lines – ‘error,’ ‘insult and unrest and terror’ – weaken the force of the passage. He has still not shaken off this habit of straining into the abstract for effect. But he is certainly beginning to master his medium.
He is also probing, at the personal level here, issues that have relevance to society as a whole and the politics that plays out at that level:
As some perverted beings think to find
In scorn or hate a medicine for the mind
Which scorn or hate have wounded–oh, how vain!
The dagger heals not, but may rend again!
He goes on to plead that they do not believe:
. . . . . 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.
Shelley is clearly using a story of personal pain to make a political point. This poem for me represents a blend of the personal/psychological and the political, making it therefore an ambitious enterprise – perhaps too ambitious, hence its failure to deliver consistently on its intentions. It helps us see perhaps from where the power of the other two poems I’m going to look at partly derives: The Mask of Anarchy is focused exclusively on the politics while Ode to the West Wind sticks with the personal.
This blend or fusion continues even as the Maniac rants against his fate at the hands of the woman he loved:
But me, whose heart a stranger’s tear might wear
As water-drops the sandy fountain-stone,
Who loved and pitied all things, and could moan
For woes which others hear not, and could see
The absent with the glance of fantasy,
And with the poor and trampled sit and weep,
Following the captive to his dungeon deep;
Me–who am as a nerve o’er which do creep
The else unfelt oppressions of this earth, 450
And was to thee the flame upon thy hearth,
When all beside was cold:–that thou on me
Shouldst rain these plagues of blistering agony!
I sense that we see here exactly how the character of the Maniac in this poem speaks for Shelley’s own self-dramatising perspective on the world, where he is the victimised but noble ally of the oppressed. This perspective has power in its compassion for the wretched and is deeply flawed in its self-pity. This seems to me the Shelley problem, from which I can never quite escape when I read most of his poetry. It is rooted in his early experiences, as we saw when we looked at his life.
I think, then, that this poem, in its intentions at least and probably in its achievement just about matches the criteria set for what we are terming a ‘great’ poem. To be fair, I have to acknowledge that Duncan Wu’s 1000-page anthology of romantic poetry does not include even a mention of this poem, let alone a quotation from it. He clearly does not number it among Shelley’s greatest achievements. I accept that it has its flaws, the main one for me being the overlong ‘Maniac’s’ monologue.
Let’s see how far I can get exploring the source of the inspiration behind this poem, which I think is different from the source of inspiration of the other two I’ve chosen to focus on.
So what triggered it?
In Julian and Maddalo the inspiration is largely derived from social interaction.
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 what was ‘the first of Shelley’s masterpieces’ (page 449): Julian and Maddalo.
This close friendship with Byron, who would seem to have probed the weaknesses of Shelley’s philosophy of life in a way that Shelley could not ignore because of his admiration for Byron as a poet, had apparently triggered something of a crisis in him and fired up the need to find a way of asserting his sense of reality but from behind the protection of a mask.
What I am not completely sure of is whether he is simply seeking to justify his position or whether he has been spurred to explore it. My money is on his having felt stung to defend his worldview. The poem would have been greater had he been able to rise to the challenge of exploring it.
The poem, via Maddalo’s comment on the Maniac, also suggests that the pain Shelley was suffering in his personal life at the time had also played its part in the generation of the poem. This might explain why the suffering of the Maniac is so central a theme and why Shelley at this point is unable to place it in perspective. We have only his word that he is more sinned against than sinning, and we are expected to accept his values on trust as right and noble.
I have come to the conclusion that in this poem we are not seeing ‘subliminal uprush’ at its deepest and best. This is rather eloquence fuelled by a personal feeling state and not much more. Shelley has not broken through to a new level of consciousness, he has merely been spurred to find a new vehicle through which to express his conscious convictions and self-justifications. Therefore, it follows, that we as readers will tend to remain undisturbed by it within our own existing frames of reference. No ‘solving for the unknown’ then.
This is very different from the situation we encounter in the next two poems, I think, which I will look at next Monday.