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Posts Tagged ‘J S Mill’

View of the River from the entrance of the Pavilion Centre

One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.

Bahá’u’lláh quoting a hadith in Kitáb-i-Íqánpage 238).

Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Tablets – page 168)

Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.

(Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality – page 212).

Last Thursday, at the Hereford Pavilion Centre, I gave a brief talk to the Herefordshire Interfaith about the Bahá’í Revelation.

Beforehand I was told that I would have 15 minutes and was given a list of questions to address.

On the day the committee part of the meeting spilled over into the Faith-to-Faith’s time slot. The quart into a pint pot problem of describing my beliefs in quarter of an hour became a quart into a test tube experience. I had five minutes!

Even so the Faith-to-Faith moments were valuable if tantalising.

First one member briefly explained the basics of Universal Sufism, a movement connected to the mystical teachings of Inayat Khan which regards itself as expressing the compassionate spiritual core of all religion and therefore does not see self-definition as Muslim a necessary criterion of membership. He closed with a short prayer.

There was time for only one question before it was my turn.

Bicentenary Leaflet

Fortunately I had copies with me of the Bicentenary leaflet that had been mailed out to us earlier from the National Office. That saved me explaining at any length the core beliefs. I handed it round at the start of my talk to all the seven people who were there.

I had time then to briefly outline the basic details of Bahá’u’lláh’s life and the essence of the Bahá’í teachings.

There was one question, before everyone shared the same feeling that next time we really needed to allow much more time to explore what was being explained.

Given that I had spent a fair amount of time preparing what I was going to say, I think it would be a shame to waste the notes I made, though not all of them were going to be shared even in a 15 minute time slot.

So, here goes.

What was unusual this time was that I was given a set of questions in advance, most of them predictable.

Question One: What is the historical and geographical story of you faith? What are your main tenets/beliefs?

Much of what I planned to say in response to that first question focused upon the life of Bahá’u’lláh, given this year celebrates the 200th Anniversary of His Birth.

The Life of Bahá’u’lláh.

Bahá’u’lláh’s life after the execution of the Báb, the Prophet Herald of the Bahá’í Faith, in 1850, was one of constant imprisonment and exile.

On 15 August 1852 there was an ill-considered and unsuccessful attempt on life of Shah by three followers of the Báb who were reacting against the persecutions taking place at the time. Bahá’u’lláh was denounced as a Bábí by the Shah’s mother amongst others.

The Chain that weighed on Bahá’u’lláh in the Siyah-Chal

He was taken to the so-called Black Pit – an underground disused water cistern used as a prison. Two chains were used on His shoulders, the heavier weighed more than 50 kgs. They left lifelong scars. The thumbs of both His hands were bound behind his back at times.

His first reported mystical experiences of the Divine occurred in this foul prison (See Moojan Momen, Bahá’u’lláh: a short biography  – page 32 – for both instances):

While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden—the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord—suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful. Betwixt earth and heaven she was raising a call which captivated the hearts and minds of men. She was imparting to both My inward and outer being tidings which rejoiced My soul, and the souls of God’s honoured servants.

Pointing with her finger unto My head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying: By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand. This is the Mystery of God and His Treasure, the Cause of God and His glory unto all who are in the kingdoms of Revelation and of creation, if ye be of them that perceive. This is He Whose Presence is the ardent desire of the denizens of the Realm of eternity, and of them that dwell within the Tabernacle of glory, and yet from His Beauty do ye turn aside.

The authorities failed to implicate Bahá’u’lláh in the plot so He was released after four months.

There followed His exile to Baghdad on 12 January 1853.

He spent 10 years there apart from a retreat to Sulaymaniyyih in Kurdistan 300 km north of Baghdad. This He did to avoid making worse the conflict his half brother was causing within the Bábí community. During those two years He wrote two mystical works, The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys, for two prominent Sufis. He returned to Baghdad on 19 March 1856.

Somewhere between 1857 and 1858 the Hidden Words were written, a condensed summary of the spiritual teachings of earlier revelations.

In January 1861 the Kitáb-i-Íqán was written for the uncle of the Báb and explains the nature of progressive revelation and the meaning of prophetic symbols of the second coming of former messengers of God.

It wasn’t until 22 April 1863 on the brink of His exile to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and then Adrianople (now Edirne) that He openly declared He was the one foretold by the Báb.

It was in Adrianople that His half-brother tried to poison Him, leaving Him with a tremor for the rest of His life.

Bahá’u’lláh’s reputation was by now spreading in spite of His exile. The Bahá’í community can be said to have really begun to take shape at this point.

In 1868 He was banished again via Gallipoli and Haifa to ‘Akka, a walled and disease-ridden city, where He arrived on 31 August 1868. The authorities hoped and expected He would die there. Most people did.

It was in that prison His younger son, Mirza Mihdi, died, after falling though a sky light while pacing in prayer on the prison roof.

The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

Bahá’u’lláh was moved under house arrest in September 1871 to the house of ‘Udi Khammar. This was where the Kitáb-i-Aqdas was completed. In this book He explains in full the laws applying to and the obligations of Bahá’ís. He also speaks of the successorship – without naming ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at this point He explains the successor will be the authoritative interpreter of Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings. He also lays the foundations of the Universal House of Justice.

A compassionate governor took office in 1876 and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was able to make plans for his father to move to a house at Mazra’ih near a beautiful garden in June 1877. He moved again to the mansion at Bahji in September 1879, close to where He was eventually buried in 1892.

His wife Asiyih Khanum had died in 1886 followed by His brother in 1887.

In 1882, at the suggestion of His father, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s The Secret of Divine Civilisation had been published in India.Political and social reform would not succeed without an underlying spiritual and moral reform’ was its theme. (Momen: page 138). Current thinking about the unwise divorce in free market thinking between J S Mill’s economics and his insistence on moral checks and balances reinforces the wisdom of this.

During the whole period from arriving in Baghdad to His time in ‘Akka a stream of books and letters flowed from His lips through the pens of His secretaries (his tremor did not allow him to write clearly and the speed of revelatory inspiration would have made it almost impossible for one hand to keep pace) – more than 7000 in all have been authenticated. In these texts he explained the details of his revelation.

In conditions less conducive than the British Museum reading room used by Karl Marx, he was able to produce what seem to me and many others across the world a better blueprint for a true civilisation. More of that next time along with an explanation of why I headed this sequence up with quotations concerning reflection and consultation.

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Piazza del Duomo, Pisa (for source of image see link)

Piazza del Duomo, Pisa (for source of image see link)

Whether we are considering greatness in art, or spirituality in human conduct, we need to remember that in both cases the light varies by degrees, and that even if it is brilliant, one can always aspire for it to become a bit brighter. This observation alone makes the argument of ‘good art despite bad conduct’ look suspicious, for in order to demonstrate the argument’s validity one has to state the criteria by which to distinguish between good and bad, and draw a line between the two.

(Mirror of the Divine: Art in the Bahá’í World Community by Ludwig Tuman – page 99)

As I am about to bring Shelley back into the frame with my next new post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago part way through. I will be checking each post carefully, as I did the last one, before I republish as I want to try and flag up places where my new understanding of the role of trauma shaping personality might help me see where any trauma in Shelley’s history might have had an impact on his art. The Herman quote is the only example in this post. These first three re-published posts ran consecutively. The others will follow after Monday’s new post.

In the last post I quoted Hazlitt’s view from Holmes’s biography that Shelley was (page 362) a ‘philosophic fanatic.’ He described him as a ‘man in knowledge, [but] a child of feeling.’

Side Issue of Altruism

In the light of Hazlitt’s comment, it is perhaps worth mentioning here where all this maps onto my desire to understand more fully the influences that either strengthen or undermine altruism. Previous posts have examined how intense idealism creates a kind of empathic tunnel vision.

Shelley’s life poses an interesting question. In terms of his personal relationships the compass of his compassion was usually very narrow in its setting, and he often displayed a repellent inability to understand the suffering he caused. However, in terms of society it was set much wider – but there was a catch. Although nominally he strongly felt our common humanity should govern our relationships with one another, his powerful emotional identification with the oppressed, which possibly had its roots in his childhood mistreatment at the hands of authority in the public school system and the lack of protection from bullying by peers that went with it, meant that anyone he defined as an oppressor would be on the receiving end of his seething animosity and subject to remorseless duplicity.

One possible key to Shelley’s paradoxical stance of callousness to those in his immediate circle and compassion for the oppressed in general may have its roots in the trauma of his school days. Judith Herman, in her excellent treatment of this issue, Trauma & Recovery, describes something similar (page 56):

The contradictory nature of [one man’s] relationships is common to traumatised people. Because of the difficulty in modulating intense anger, survivors oscillate between uncontrolled expressions of rage and intolerance of aggression in any form. Thus, on the one hand, this man felt compassionate and protective towards others and could not stand the thought of anyone being harmed, while on the other hand, he was explosively angry and irritable towards his family. His own inconsistency was one of the sources of his torment.

When he fled into voluntary exile it is hard to determine the moral value of his flight. He feared imprisonment both because of his debts and because of his principles.

This indicates to me that unpicking the dynamics of altruism is not going to be easy. A facile attempt to distinguish between ‘cognitive’ and ‘affective’ altruism as a way of explaining political caring, on the one hand, co-existing in the same human being with personal callousness on the other, won’t get me very far.

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

His Later Life

Enough of that for now.

After the death of their son, affectionately called Willmouse, Mary’s grief was great indeed. Shelley held himself back (page 520):

He decided that it was best to leave her to live out her own feelings and despair by herself. He continued his reading and writing through the summer… It was a harsh but characteristic commitment to his own craft.

It is in the period after the composition of Julian & Maddallo, a poem we will be looking at in a later post and which was unpublished at the time, that the vexed problem of the paternity of the child of their Swiss companion, Elise, further intensifies Shelley’s problems at this period of his life (pages 465-475). Holmes, after a detailed examination of the evidence concludes that the child was Shelley’s.

It is also possible that Claire miscarried at the same time as Elena was born, and that Shelley could also have been the father of that child, conceived at a later date. The evidence of both these possibilities is inconclusive, but the situation in his entourage was extremely fraught, not least because Clara, his infant daughter by Mary, died at this time. The circumstances that triggered her death were exacerbated by Shelley’s preoccupation with Elena’s birth and a mysterious illness of Claire’s.

Between 1818 and 1820 Shelley’s life had been extremely nomadic, involving ‘eight residences in rather less than twenty-four months’ (Holmes – page 575). He asks, ‘was Shelley running away from something, or was he running after something?’ Not an easy question to answer. Ann Wroe, in her book Being Shelley, shares one of his friend Hogg’s insights, along with a quote from Shelley himself (pages 170-71; the quote is from The Solitary in The Esdaile Notebook edited by K N Cameron):

As Hogg saw it, Shelley never fled towards, but escaped from, whatever it was that moved him. Shelley put it better: ‘He pants to reach what yet he seems to fly.’   

It was in this period that his masterpiece of protest poetry was composed. 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. There will be more of this when I come to consider his poetry in detail.

Others have achieved this in later times in song.

When he settled in Pisa in 1820 this restless pattern was cut across but not finally appeased, Holmes felt.

An important prose work in the Pisa period was his continuation of A Philosophical Review of Reform. It touched both on the role of poetry, a theme he returned to later as a separate issue, and on the nature of political process. He speaks (page 585) of the writer tuning in to ‘the spirit of the age’ and we first hear his concept of poets as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’

Concerning ‘the exploitation of labour through capital investment,’ Shelley influenced John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Engels (page 586). He saw the necessity for writers to raise the consciousness of not only the educated classes. He was also considering the issue of universal suffrage. He began to see the value of a ‘graduated response’ where small advances should not be rejected because a greater one was not currently practicable (page 590). If parliament drags its feet, he saw the value of ‘intellectual attack and a programme of public meetings and civil disobedience.’ He began to see passive resistance as a possible means of shifting the attitude of the soldiers who were acting as agents of the state in curbing protest (page 591). Holmes feels (page 592) that this document was a bold attempt ‘to define the relationship between imaginative literature and social and political change.’ It was not published for another 100 years. (This is not the record as a recent Guardian article indicates: see link).

Elena, his illegitimate daughter by Elise, died on 9 June 1820 though Shelley did not learn of it until early July (page 596), after his work on A Philosophical Review of Reform was completed.

Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli (for source of image see link)

Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli (for source of image see link)

Though Shelley was still producing poetry at this point, such as The Witch of Atlas and Swellfoot, the Tyrant, Holmes comments (page 612) on what he calls ‘a steady withdrawal of creative pressure and urgency,’ though his work as a translator continued to flourish.

One of the best descriptions of Shelley’s physical appearance and the impression he made late in life comes from Byron’s mistress at the time, Contessa Teresa Guiccioli. Fiona MacCarthy comments on and quotes her in her biography of Byron (pages 401-02):

She judged him as by no means so conventionally handsome as her own lover was. His smile was bad, his teeth misshapen and irregular, his skin covered with freckles, his unkempt hair already threaded through with premature silver. ‘He was very tall, but stooped so much that he seemed to be of ordinary height; and although his whole frame was very slight, his bones and knuckles were prominent and even knobbly.’ But Shelley still had a kind of beauty, ‘an expression that could almost be described as godly and austere.’

Thomas Medwin, on meeting him again after an interval of seven years, described him as ‘emaciated, and somewhat bent; owing to near-sightedness, and his being forced to lean over his books, with his eyes almost touching them; his hair, still profuse, and curling naturally, was partially interspersed with grey . . .’

Shelley’s health continued to be problematic, with painful attacks of what Medwin called ‘Nephritis’ (probably gallstones) which (page 618) caused Shelley to ‘roll on the floor in agony.’ Claire’s absence in Florence also saddened him. He missed her friendship and company.

He composed the Tower of Famine at this time and began an over-idealised relationship with Contessa Emilia Viviani (page 625), whose virtual incarceration in a convent while her parents sorted out a suitable marriage partner triggered most of Shelley’s romance electrodes, not least the combination of beauty and imprisonment.

At this time (page 626) he was also dabbling with mesmerism to ease his ‘nephritic spasms.’ It led him to speculate that, in mesmerism, ‘a separation from the mind and body took place – one being most active and the other an inert mass of matter.’ In Adonais, he was even tempted to explore the possibility of the immortality of the soul in the context of Something that looks remarkably close to an idea of God.

That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
That Beauty in which all things work and move,
That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse
Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
Which through the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me,
Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.

Even so, any implications about the immortality of the soul would not, according to the critical consensus, have warranted a revision of his disbelief in God. My doubts about the possible simplifying myth of Shelley’s atheism are on the rise. It is as though emotionally he believed absolutely in the reality of transcendent forces to which he felt connected; intellectually he couldn’t allow himself to accept that this had anything to do with a god such as his contemporaries believed in. I find myself wondering whether in his poetry we will more consistently find belief, and in his prose more frequently a scathing scepticism: that’s something I might have to test out later.

Ann Wroe’s conclusion lends support to this possibility (page 353):

And early I had learned to scorn
The chains of clay that bound a soul
Panting to seize the wings of morn,
And where its vital fires were born
To soar . . . .

Those lines, from 1812, were Shelley’s constant conviction as a poet. As a man, he was unsure . . . . .

She also reminds us of Shelley’s own explanation of his atheism (page 280):

When he redacted The Necessity of Atheism for his notes to Queen Mab in 1813, he added a new gloss to the words ‘There is no God:’ ‘This negation must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.’

Shelley, at this time and within a brief fortnight, wrote the 600 lines of Epipsychidion, (the title is Greek for ‘concerning or about a little soul’ from epi, ‘around’, and psychidion, ‘little soul,’ which Holmes (page 631) describes as an ‘extraordinary piece of autobiography’ and (page 632) ‘a retrospective review of his own emotional development since adolescence.’ In it he finds symbols (pages 635-636) to capture Shelley’s sense of Emily’s and Mary’s meaning in his life: Mary is the Moon, Emily the Sun while he is the Earth. He found a place for Claire also as a Comet!

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.

Next comes the composition of A Defence of Poetry. A brief consideration of this must wait till we come to the post on his poetry.

Edward John Trelawny (for source of image see link)

Edward John Trelawny (for source of image see link)

Three things mark this closing period of Shelley’s life. In terms of his relationships the death of Claire’s daughter, Allegra, of typhus fever in April 1822 is among the most important. In terms of the unexpected manner of his dying, he celebrated the arrival of his newly built sailing boat in May.

As for his poetry, he began composing The Triumph of Life. I may come back to that when I discuss his poetry.

In June he was bizarrely requesting his friend, Trelawny (page 725), for a lethal dose of ‘Prussic Acid or essential oil of bitter almonds[1].’

There is confusion in the end about the exact circumstances of Shelley’s death on his boat off the coast of Viareggio. MacCarthy agrees with Holmes that there was a squall. However, whereas Holmes paints a picture of Shelley’s almost suicidal recklessness as being the main cause of the vessel’s sinking, she feels there is the possibility that (page 428) ‘they were rammed and sunk by a marauding vessel.’

It is perhaps fitting that his death was as ambivalent as his life.

In the next post I will be looking at the relationship between art and the artist in general terms. This will then lead to a set of posts reviewing Shelley’s poetry before I get round to trying to develop a tentative model of the creative process I can use to help me examine other artists’ lives – even so I’m possibly being slightly over-ambitious there, I think.

Footnote:

[1] Bitter almonds contain glycoside amygdalin. When eaten, glycoside amygdalin will turn into prussic acid, a.k.a. hydrogen cyanide.

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Piazza del Duomo, Pisa (for source of image see link)

Piazza del Duomo, Pisa (for source of image see link)

Whether we are considering greatness in art, or spirituality in human conduct, we need to remember that in both cases the light varies by degrees, and that even if it is brilliant, one can always aspire for it to become a bit brighter. This observation alone makes the argument of ‘good art despite bad conduct’ look suspicious, for in order to demonstrate the argument’s validity one has to state the criteria by which to distinguish between good and bad, and draw a line between the two.

(Mirror of the Divine: Art in the Bahá’í World Community by Ludwig Tuman – page 99)

In the last post I quoted Hazlitt’s view from Holmes’s biography that Shelley was (page 362) a ‘philosophic fanatic.’ He described him as a ‘man in knowledge, [but] a child of feeling.’

Side Issue of Altruism

In the light of Hazlitt’s comment, it is perhaps worth mentioning here where all this maps onto my desire to understand more fully the influences that either strengthen or undermine altruism. Previous posts have examined how intense idealism creates a kind of empathic tunnel vision.

Shelley’s life poses an interesting question. In terms of his personal relationships the compass of his compassion was usually very narrow in its setting, and he often displayed a repellent inability to understand the suffering he caused. However, in terms of society it was set much wider – but there was a catch. Although nominally he strongly felt our common humanity should govern our relationships with one another, his powerful emotional identification with the oppressed, which possibly had its roots in his childhood mistreatment at the hands of authority in the public school system and the lack of protection from bullying by peers that went with it, meant that anyone he defined as an oppressor would be on the receiving end of his seething animosity and subject to remorseless duplicity. When he fled into voluntary exile it is hard to determine the moral value of his flight. He feared imprisonment both because of his debts and because of his principles.

This indicates to me that unpicking the dynamics of altruism is not going to be easy. A facile attempt to distinguish between ‘cognitive’ and ‘affective’ altruism as a way of explaining political caring, on the one hand, co-existing in the same human being with personal callousness on the other, won’t get me very far.

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

His Later Life

Enough of that for now.

After the death of their son, affectionately called Willmouse, Mary’s grief was great indeed. Shelley held himself back (page 520):

He decided that it was best to leave her to live out her own feelings and despair by herself. He continued his reading and writing through the summer… It was a harsh but characteristic commitment to his own craft.

It is in the period after the composition of Julian & Maddallo, a poem we will be looking at in a later post and which was unpublished at the time, that the vexed problem of the paternity of the child of their Swiss companion, Elise, further intensifies Shelley’s problems at this period of his life (pages 465-475). Holmes, after a detailed examination of the evidence concludes that the child was Shelley’s.

It is also possible that Claire miscarried at the same time as Elena was born, and that Shelley could also have been the father of that child, conceived at a later date. The evidence of both these possibilities is inconclusive, but the situation in his entourage was extremely fraught, not least because Clara, his infant daughter by Mary, died at this time. The circumstances that triggered her death were exacerbated by Shelley’s preoccupation with Elena’s birth and a mysterious illness of Claire’s.

Between 1818 and 1820 Shelley’s life had been extremely nomadic, involving ‘eight residences in rather less than twenty-four months’ (Holmes – page 575). He asks, ‘was Shelley running away from something, or was he running after something?’ Not an easy question to answer. Ann Wroe, in her book Being Shelley, shares one of his friend Hogg’s insights, along with a quote from Shelley himself (pages 170-71; the quote is from The Solitary in The Esdaile Notebook edited by K N Cameron):

As Hogg saw it, Shelley never fled towards, but escaped from, whatever it was that moved him. Shelley put it better: ‘He pants to reach what yet he seems to fly.’   

It was in this period that his masterpiece of protest poetry was composed. 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. There will be more of this when I come to consider his poetry in detail.

Others have achieved this in later times in song.

When he settled in Pisa in 1820 this restless pattern was cut across but not finally appeased, Holmes felt.

An important prose work in the Pisa period was his continuation of A Philosophical Review of Reform. It touched both on the role of poetry, a theme he returned to later as a separate issue, and on the nature of political process. He speaks (page 585) of the writer tuning in to ‘the spirit of the age’ and we first hear his concept of poets as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’

Concerning ‘the exploitation of labour through capital investment,’ Shelley influenced John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Engels (page 586). He saw the necessity for writers to raise the consciousness of not only the educated classes. He was also considering the issue of universal suffrage. He began to see the value of a ‘graduated response’ where small advances should not be rejected because a greater one was not currently practicable (page 590). If parliament drags its feet, he saw the value of ‘intellectual attack and a programme of public meetings and civil disobedience.’ He began to see passive resistance as a possible means of shifting the attitude of the soldiers who were acting as agents of the state in curbing protest (page 591). Holmes feels (page 592) that this document was a bold attempt ‘to define the relationship between imaginative literature and social and political change.’ It was not published for another 100 years. (This is not the record as a recent Guardian article indicates: see link).

Elena, his illegitimate daughter by Elise, died on 9 June 1820 though Shelley did not learn of it until early July (page 596), after his work on A Philosophical Review of Reform was completed.

Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli (for source of image see link)

Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli (for source of image see link)

Though Shelley was still producing poetry at this point, such as The Witch of Atlas and Swellfoot, the Tyrant, Holmes comments (page 612) on what he calls ‘a steady withdrawal of creative pressure and urgency,’ though his work as a translator continued to flourish.

One of the best descriptions of Shelley’s physical appearance and the impression he made late in life comes from Byron’s mistress at the time, Contessa Teresa Guiccioli. Fiona MacCarthy comments on and quotes her in her biography of Byron (pages 401-02):

She judged him as by no means so conventionally handsome as her own lover was. His smile was bad, his teeth misshapen and irregular, his skin covered with freckles, his unkempt hair already threaded through with premature silver. ‘He was very tall, but stooped so much that he seemed to be of ordinary height; and although his whole frame was very slight, his bones and knuckles were prominent and even knobbly.’ But Shelley still had a kind of beauty, ‘an expression that could almost be described as godly and austere.’

Thomas Medwin, on meeting him again after an interval of seven years, described him as ‘emaciated, and somewhat bent; owing to near-sightedness, and his being forced to lean over his books, with his eyes almost touching them; his hair, still profuse, and curling naturally, was partially interspersed with grey . . .’

Shelley’s health continued to be problematic, with painful attacks of what Medwin called ‘Nephritis’ (probably gallstones) which (page 618) caused Shelley to ‘roll on the floor in agony.’ Claire’s absence in Florence also saddened him. He missed her friendship and company.

He composed the Tower of Famine at this time and began an over-idealised relationship with Contessa Emilia Viviani (page 625), whose virtual incarceration in a convent while her parents sorted out a suitable marriage partner triggered most of Shelley’s romance electrodes, not least the combination of beauty and imprisonment.

At this time (page 626) he was also dabbling with mesmerism to ease his ‘nephritic spasms.’ It led him to speculate that, in mesmerism, ‘a separation from the mind and body took place – one being most active and the other an inert mass of matter.’ In Adonais, he was even tempted to explore the possibility of the immortality of the soul in the context of Something that looks remarkably close to an idea of God.

That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
That Beauty in which all things work and move,
That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse
Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
Which through the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me,
Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.

Even so, any implications about the immortality of the soul would not, according to the critical consensus, have warranted a revision of his disbelief in God. My doubts about the possible simplifying myth of Shelley’s atheism are on the rise. It is as though emotionally he believed absolutely in the reality of transcendent forces to which he felt connected; intellectually he couldn’t allow himself to accept that this had anything to do with a god such as his contemporaries believed in. I find myself wondering whether in his poetry we will more consistently find belief, and in his prose more frequently a scathing scepticism: that’s something I might have to test out later.

Ann Wroe’s conclusion lends support to this possibility (page 353):

And early I had learned to scorn
The chains of clay that bound a soul
Panting to seize the wings of morn,
And where its vital fires were born
To soar . . . .

Those lines, from 1812, were Shelley’s constant conviction as a poet. As a man, he was unsure . . . . .

She also reminds us of Shelley’s own explanation of his atheism (page 280):

When he redacted The Necessity of Atheism for his notes to Queen Mab in 1813, he added a new gloss to the words ‘There is no God:’ ‘This negation must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.’

Shelley, at this time and within a brief fortnight, wrote the 600 lines of Epipsychidion, (the title is Greek for ‘concerning or about a little soul’ from epi, ‘around’, and psychidion, ‘little soul,’ which Holmes (page 631) describes as an ‘extraordinary piece of autobiography’ and (page 632) ‘a retrospective review of his own emotional development since adolescence.’ In it he finds symbols (pages 635-636) to capture Shelley’s sense of Emily’s and Mary’s meaning in his life: Mary is the Moon, Emily the Sun while he is the Earth. He found a place for Claire also as a Comet!

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.

Next comes the composition of A Defence of Poetry. A brief consideration of this must wait till we come to the post on his poetry.

Edward John Trelawny (for source of image see link)

Edward John Trelawny (for source of image see link)

Three things mark this closing period of Shelley’s life. In terms of his relationships the death of Claire’s daughter, Allegra, of typhus fever in April 1822 is among the most important. In terms of the unexpected manner of his dying, he celebrated the arrival of his newly built sailing boat in May.

As for his poetry, he began composing The Triumph of Life. I may come back to that when I discuss his poetry.

In June he was bizarrely requesting his friend, Trelawny (page 725), for a lethal dose of ‘Prussic Acid or essential oil of bitter almonds[1].’

There is confusion in the end about the exact circumstances of Shelley’s death on his boat off the coast of Viareggio. MacCarthy agrees with Holmes that there was a squall. However, whereas Holmes paints a picture of Shelley’s almost suicidal recklessness as being the main cause of the vessel’s sinking, she feels there is the possibility that (page 428) ‘they were rammed and sunk by a marauding vessel.’

It is perhaps fitting that his death was as ambivalent as his life.

In the next post I will be looking at the relationship between art and the artist in general terms. This will then lead to a set of posts reviewing Shelley’s poetry before I get round to trying to develop a tentative model of the creative process I can use to help me examine other artists’ lives – even so I’m possibly being slightly over-ambitious there, I think.

Footnote:

[1] Bitter almonds contain glycoside amygdalin. When eaten, glycoside amygdalin will turn into prussic acid, a.k.a. hydrogen cyanide.

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