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Posts Tagged ‘William Godwin’

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 I have brought Shelley back into the frame with Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! The role of trauma in his life is again emphasised:

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.

Yet more I will need to note and reflect upon in the light of what I have recently been learning.

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 was 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 the cranky.

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

800px-John_Everett_Millais_-_Ophelia_-_Google_Art_Project

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. As my understanding of this issue shifts with the insights Emma has shared in her comments on my earlier posts, I can see that this is more likely to be the result of his narcissism rather than the effects of his traumatic schooling.

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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Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Abdu’l-Bahá said…: ‘All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God.’

(Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1954), p. 167)

The Art, Life and the Artist

As I have brought Shelley back into the frame with yesterday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! There are examples of trauma in his life at the point I take it up, that I will need to note and reflect upon in the light of what I have recently been learning. This phase in the sequence also looks at some general principles that may be relevant to creativity in general as well as Shelley in particular.

One reason I persisted in reading on against the current of my initial antipathy was that Shelley’s life, as the earlier posts and what follows later will clarify, illustrates an aspect of the complex relationship between creativity and personality – something I very much want to understand more fully and more directly for myself.

There are many theories and ideas about this whole multi-faceted area.

A Psychological Take

I’ve posted earlier my sense of Baumeister and Tierney’s position on the tendency of great creativity to be paired with chaotic or even destructive tendencies (cf also my posts on Dickens). They raise the question of whether the discrepancy between a lofty art and a debased life could stem from what they term ‘ego depletion.’ ‘Ego’ is used here to mean the faculty of self-regulation. They contend (Kindle Reference 428):

Restraining sexual impulses takes energy, and so does creative work. If you pour energy into your art, you have less available to restrain your libido.

They are aware that there are exceptions to this correlation, quoting Anthony Trollope as one example, and that there are ways of reducing the strain on self-control by automating the grunt work of creativity by regular habit. However, I am uncomfortable in accepting that this is the only or even the best explanation of this pattern.

There are many who continue to argue that creativity goes with some form of ‘mental illness,’ such as bipolar disorder. Again, not a complete or adequate explanation, as we will see in a later post.

A Spiritual Perspective

Maitreyabandhu has a subtle take on this whole issue. He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2012, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

I will be returning in far more detail to his perspective in the final sequence of posts.

With Shelley we can immediately see how hard it was for him to express his compassionate ideals in his personal life. There was a strong element of narcissism that kept dragging him down, so that his indifference to the suffering he caused to those closest to him was bordering on brutal at times, even though he wept at the idea of the poor dying in the streets. I will be looking more closely at how life gradually helped him lift himself above this trap more often as he got older. Sadly, we will never know how high he might have been able to climb had he lived longer.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Morality and Art

Defining the relationship between the artist’s work and the artist’s life can raise serious issues that are not easy to resolve even if we can have access to all the necessary information.

For example, on 17 October, The Guardian published an interesting examination of this problem triggered by the court’s having ordered the destruction of original photographs, some historic and some by Ovenden himself, in the possession of Graham Ovenden, a convicted paedophile. Emine Saner wrote:

Can you ever divorce an artist’s life from their work? “Knowing Van Gogh shot himself, does that change the way you look at his paintings? Caravaggio was a murderer – does that make you look at him differently?” . . . . .

The attitude, says art writer Jonathan Jones, “where people [think] the art exists in its own sphere – I think that’s not true at all. Ovenden’s art probably does reflect aspects of his life we now find deeply troubling.” The question of how harshly we should judge the art by its artist remains. Can you read Alice in Wonderland in the same way when you’ve seen Lewis Carroll’s photographs of naked girls? Or listen to Benjamin Britten’s work, knowing he wrote great music for children, with such attention, because he had an obsession with pubescent boys (as detailed in John Bridcut’s 2006 biography)?

There are even questions, often raised by the surviving family, of what it is permissible to publish about an artist’s life, which makes this area even more difficult to grapple with because we are then deprived for sure of all we need to know. The most recent such furore has been about Jonathan Bates’s unauthorized biography of the late poet laureate, Ted Hughes. Bates’s freedom to quote was seriously curtailed, as a Guardian review explains:

As has been widely reported, he began his work on a “literary life” with the support of the Ted Hughes estate, controlled by the poet’s widow Carol. Late in the day this support was withdrawn: evidently, his researches were not purely “literary” enough. Permission for any substantial quotation from Hughes’s writing was also withdrawn, and Bate’s Unauthorised Life has to grapple with this ban.

The debate is heated. Adam Begley perhaps the defined the crucial issue best when he wrote recently:

Perhaps the answer is to divide the biographical mission into halves. A biographer engaged in research should be shameless, free of compunction and squeamishness. Every fact, no matter how sordid, whether plucked from the archives or the trash can, should be grist for the mill. Snobbish convictions about propriety and highbrow notions about the elevated status of art should be banished – but only until it comes time to tell the life story, at which point the biographer’s shamelessness must be put to good use. Any dirt dug up must tell us something essential about the person under scrutiny, about the work accomplished, about the achievement that makes the life worth examining.

Easier said than done, I suspect, as did Henry James also, when he penned his pointed dissection of the mind of a digger of bio-dirt – The Aspern Papers. Very appropriately for present purposes the short story was based on an attempt by Edward Silsbee to elicit documents about Shelley from Claire Clairmont shortly before she died (cf Richard Holmes – Shelley: the pursuit (page 733). The acid tone of the book can be sampled in the narrator’s reflection on his approach as he speaks to the niece of the lady who has the papers he longs to get his hands on: ‘I felt particularly like the reporter of a newspaper who forces his way into a house of mourning.’

Clearly, at such a remove in time and after so many relevant papers have been suppressed and destroyed, we will never be completely sure where the truth lies (can the truth lie?) in Shelley’s case. I’ll continue to have a stab at it none the less. I’ve come too far now to turn back!

subliminal

Source of Inspiration

In addition, there is the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Are the person and the poet not quite the same? May they be almost completely distinct as Shelley felt?

Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FHW Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ Their book explores in depth the full complexity of our relationship with our unconscious processes. They give many examples of how people are simply not aware of complex and coherent processes at work beneath the surface of awareness. This makes taking a simplistic line which links the person we see with the source of the poetry tempting but deceptive. It is probable that, at the very least, the source of poetry is not completely reducible to the visible influences of a poet’s life. It may even, with the best poetry, be largely the product of invisible unconscious creative processes.

Even so, ‘subliminal uprush’ could be a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live.

At a more prosaic level and looking at external influences, Ludwig Tuman makes a telling point in his excellent survey of creativity and spirituality (page 19) when he draws the distinction between those who work within a global framework and those who work within a more circumscribed tradition:

The approach taken by an artist whose creative work draws its inspiration or its substance more from outlying cultures than from that of his native land, will in this book be called the global approach.

Since the Nineteenth Century this approach has become increasingly practicable for more and more artists.  Nonetheless he feels we should not disparage ‘work’ which ‘draws more on [the artist’s] traditional culture.’  This he terms ‘the traditional approach.’

A third element is perhaps worth mentioning here. Last month, there was a programme on the BBC called Wider Horizons, which focused on the music of David Gilmour, best known as a member of the band Pink Floyd. It became very clear that his creativity was in part fostered by a network of close contemporary collaborators including Phil Manzanera, a record producer and Roxy Music guitarist, and Gilmour’s wife, Polly Samson, who writes many of his lyrics.

What is also true of Gilmour, and all other creative artists as far as I can tell, – the same mysterious element Myers strove to define – also comes across from the programme. Interviewed by Alan Yentob he attempts to describe the experience of realising a song is emerging:

Every once in a while an idea will force its way to the surface of my mind. When I’m trying to write a lyric, a song about . . . . but I’ve got no way of predicting where that’s going to go in the future. I keep thinking that there is a little door, a little key that I can open and I’ll suddenly find a way that would make it slightly simpler for me to move those things forwards and define them, ‘cos there’s plenty to write about, but I haven’t yet really pinned that down.

A Historical Angle

Also there are those who locate the problem of a problematic life and the kind of art it permits as deriving principally from the 19th Century onwards. For example, Ludwig Tuman in his exploration of the role of art – Mirror of the Divine – (page 102) argues that:

[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

This would suggest that this model of explanation – great art tends to emanate from disreputable artists –  would be only of limited use. I intend to keep an open mind on that one. One of the most obvious contaminating factors to any examination of the evidence on this issue would be the fact that evidence is less readily available the further back in history you look. This might not simply be a question of more time means more accidental loss: in other earlier periods contemporaries might have been even more motivated than the Victorians to exalt the reputation of their great artists, as well as less concerned than we are to preserve every scrap of information.

Problems of Definition

Tuman also makes a compelling case that defining precisely any of the variables, such as the quality of the art or the moral rectitude of the artist, is almost impossible and concludes (page 99):

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.

He does contend, even so, that there will be a correlation between the quality of the art and the character of the artist because, as a Bahá’í, he is convinced that you cannot completely separate external action from inner state, even if no one outside the artist can define the relationship exactly in any given case. He takes the reach of this belief beyond the realm of art to include everything we do and makes a very telling point towards the end of his chapter on this issue (page 108):

One of the reasons that the world is in such a chaotic state is that professionals are trained for their calling technically, but are often not prepared spiritually

Where does this leave me?

Perhaps because of all this confusion of views, I feel I need to look at this whole issue more deeply for myself. Admittedly I’m not going to be doing thorough systematic studies across large populations of people. For example, if we are to test out the ‘ego depletion’ hypothesis we need to do a prospective study of creative artists which compares their level of work intensity with, say, lawyers, accounts, psychologists, and, if we are to take Maitreyabandhu’s point seriously, a group of meditators who also work hard at some vocation. I’m not up for that level of exploration.

I am choosing instead to embark, as time permits, on a reading of diverse biographies, particularly of more or less equally famous and hard working people from diverse backgrounds, many but not all of them creative artists of some kind, to see what patterns if any emerge.

In terms of the present, possibly over-ambitious exercise, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of what we learnt about Shelley from a whirlwind tour of his life before seeing what, if anything, that might imply about his poetry. In doing so I need to bear in mind all the strictures and caveats I’ve just been quoting. I’m not sure I can do this well so early in my learning process, but I’m going to have a go.

What we’ve learnt about Shelley so far

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source of image see link

In the first post, for those who may not have read it, I described Shelley’s dark situation and character contradictions in fairly stark terms.

He was a poet living in a time of terror: terror visited by his own state upon its own people, and recent terror overseas, both during and in the wake of revolution. During his career as a poet he behaved oppressively to most of the women closest to him, one of them committing suicide partly as a result of his indifference to her suffering. He also displayed great courage in speaking out for the oppressed in his society, at the risk of imprisonment and possibly even death.

I quoted his sonnet about Ozymandias to illustrate how powerfully he understood the emptiness and vanity of power and wealth. His sonnet about the condition of England in 1819 as George III was dying, which I also quoted, showed his compassion for the poorest in his society when he wrote of ‘[a] people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,’ and looked forward in hope to the possible redemption of his society.

After looking at his early life of privilege and, while at home, his domination of his younger sisters, tempered by his later experiences of being cruelly bullied at both his schools, I quoted the conclusion Holmes came to as his biographer (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.

Later years saw his continuing love of the macabre and episodes of hysterical intensity. His close relationships continued to reveal a lack of empathy and this could be exacerbated by his intense idealism. So much so, that it was tempting to conclude that he had invested a huge amount of ego in the ideals he chose to espouse. It took much suffering, his own and other people’s, to shift the tight grip of Narcissus on his thinking.

That he could be generous is shown by his consistent support for Claire Clairmont after her affair with Byron and the birth of their daughter, Allegra. His protracted negotiations with Byron on Claire’s behalf also show that he could be perceptive and diplomatic when he saw the compelling need, as he did in this case.

Holmes’s conclusion about Shelley at this time was that he was not completely blind to his socially destructive impulses but was rarely able to curb them. Commenting on a letter Shelley wrote to William Godwin, with whom his relationship was positive at that point, Holmes writes (page 145):

It was a warm and touching letter. In the intellectual presence of one he felt he could trust, Shelley’s sense of personal inadequacy is revealing. He was rarely able to admit his own impatience and his own bitterness of feeling; more usually he was ‘unimpeached and unimpeachable.’

A key event that helped Shelley mature was the suicide of his first wife. Claire Clairmont 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.’

For insights shed on this from the trauma literature see my earlier see the three immediately preceding posts accessible from the links at the start of this post..

The really difficult bit starts with the next post tomorrow – trying to map some of this at least onto the development of Shelley’s poetry! I’ll begin with a review of key moments in that trajectory followed, in a later group of posts in this sequence, by reflections on where that leaves me as I try to articulate my own sense of the issue in a wider perspective.

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The Massacre at Paris 1792 Plundering the King´s Cellar at Paris (for source of image see link)

The Massacre at Paris 1792, a tendentious English take on the matter (for source of image see link)

Well is it with the king who keepeth a tight hold on the reins of his passion, restraineth his anger and preferreth justice and fairness to injustice and tyranny.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 65)

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 before I republish. 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. Given my reading of Boarding School Syndrome, I can see that I will need to give these years of his life far more attention than I did last time. These first three re-published posts will be run consecutively. Others will follow after Monday’s new post.

As I indicated towards the end of the last post, as my reading of Richard Holmes’s 700 page account of Shelley’s life moved forward, though I lost none of my reservations about the man, they became balanced both by examples of his capacity for kindness at times and by the increasing depth and accessibility of his poetry.

I was also powerfully struck by how relevant his challenges and concerns still are to our world today. We also, as he was, are living in a country which watches terror abroad afraid that it will come to haunt us at home. Even though the desire for liberty had inspired the French Revolution, by the time the Jacobins gained power ruthless oppression had betrayed its original ideals, a pattern that Shelley, for reasons we’ll explore soon, became aware would tend to repeat itself. We have seen many of those repetitions take place across the world since his day, most conspicuously, but by no means only, in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China.

As I explained last time, I will be starting with a helicopter survey of Shelley’s life. Next week I’ll be looking at some ideas about the life/art relationship in general before taking a closer look at Shelley’s poetry prior to attempting to formulate a model of creativity from the wreckage.

Early Influences

In childhood, it would seem, Shelley ruled the roost (page 3):

Bysshe, the favourite of the servants, and secure in his position as tribal chief, ran riot at Field Place [his childhood home].

His time at boarding school was a torment but he had two factors that helped him reduce the impact of the incessant bullying (page 5):

One was his imaginary world of monsters and demons and apparitions. The other was an unexpected discovery – he found he had inherited something his grandfather’s character, and had a violent and absolutely ungovernable temper once he grew angry.

The latter characteristic posed a problem for Shelley though (ibid.):

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.

There are no reminiscences recorded by either of his parents about Shelley: all we know is that, as a child, he found his mother (page 11) ‘increasingly distant and unresponsive, and there are indications that he felt deeply rejected.’ His later relationship with his father, after the age of 18, was extremely fractious. He (page 12) ‘dramatised him as the worst kind of tyrant and hypocrite.’

While Holmes warns us to treat these ‘melodramatic’ descriptions with caution, they are very revealing about Shelley’s ‘mythopoeic faculty,’ a major factor in his later creativity. Later (page 105) Holmes indicates, in the accounts Shelley gave of his childhood, that he ‘could be very unscrupulous in adjusting the truth when the need arose,’ but that ‘it is difficult to tell how far Shelley really realised – or admitted to himself – what he was doing.’

My later reading about trauma, undertaken after I had finished this sequence, may shed further light on this. Allowing for a number of caveats, including the way his upbringing prior to boarding school had infused a degree of narcissistic entitlement into his character, it is possible that his fierce temper may be at least in part attributable to his schooling. Joy Schaverian, in her thought-provoking book Boarding School Syndrome, describes what she learnt from a patient she calls Theo, not his real name. Prior to therapy he had often withdrawn from his wife and family for reasons that were not clear to him. Only when he confronted an example of his own violence during his school days did he begin to realise more fully the dynamics of his withdrawal pattern (page 86):

He knew he could be meaner, and this became evident to him when a boy unfairly kicked him during a rugby match. The next time there was a scrum, he took the opportunity to hit that boy. This is depicted in the picture shown below. He was shocked by his own violence and deeply ashamed in telling this story. This brought to light another aspect of the rage of which he was so scared. Theo’s extreme self-control was mustered to keep this aspect of himself at bay. He was worried about how vengeful he had been on this occasion.

the-fight

Schooldays

A school contemporary at Syon House described Shelley (page 13) as having ‘considerable political talent, accompanied by a violent and extremely excitable temper.’

Shelley was also fascinated by science (page 16) in a ‘speculative and imaginative’ fashion, though ‘more naturally inclined to the field of social sciences – sociology, psychology, even parapsychology – than the physical ones.’

On his return to Field Place, the home of his childhood, after two years at Syon House, we see an escalation in the problematic side of his character (page 17):

Shelley’s natural mischievousness had become more uncontrollable, his games and experiment more violent, and his authority over his sisters more domineering.

A streak of indifference to others’ feelings, even cruelty, became apparent:

Shelley suggested that he will be able to cure his [sister’s] chilblains by [a] method of electrification, but his sister’s ‘terror overwhelmed all other feelings’ and she complained to their parents. Shelley was required to desist.

At Oxford he was later to torment his scout’s son, who had learning disabilities, with the same threat of electrification. His time at Eton replicated his experiences at Syon House, if not worse (page 19) since ‘the bullying by his fellow pupils was extremely severe.’ His experiences with authority were stained with the same dye so that (page 20):

He remembered these first years at Eton with an intensity of loathing that affected many of his later attitudes towards organised authority and social conformism.

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. Here seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

Mary Shelley's portrait by Richard Rothwell (for source of image see link)

Mary Shelley’s late portrait by Richard Rothwell (for source of image see link)

Briefly at Oxford

In his brief time at Oxford, before being sent down for publishing a pamphlet on atheism, he developed a close friendship with Thomas Jefferson Hogg, the co-author of the pamphlet. Hogg has much to say about his impressions of Shelley. There was much he could not explain (page 42):

The fascination with firearms was one of many elements in Shelley’s character which Hogg, a very down-to-earth personality despite all his masterly sarcasms, could never really account for. Another was Shelley’s almost maniac disregard, on certain occasions, for the commonplace decencies of normal public behaviour, as the time when he seized a baby out of his mother’s arms while crossing Magdalen Bridge and began earnestly to question it about the nature of its Platonic pre-existence so that he might prove a point in an argument he was having with Hogg concerning metempsychosis. A third, and even more significant facet, which Hogg all his life tended to discount as mere comic ‘fancy,’ was Shelley’s natural and sometimes overwhelming sense of the macabre.

He delighted in ‘ritual horror sessions’ throughout his life and they were a constant marker of ‘the darker side of Shelley’s personality’ (pages 260-61). It is hardly surprising then that the most famous novel his second wife, Mary, ever wrote was Frankenstein.

He was also prone (page 114) to ‘attacks of hysteria; at its most extreme this could involve a screaming fit and complete prostration, and he would have to be put to bed and nursed.’

When the relationship with his father was moving towards meltdown over Shelley’s unorthodox behaviour and atheistic views, their shared inability to empathise with each other sank their chances of reconciliation (page 59):

Shelley could see no more than theological hypocrisy and paternal treachery; while Timothy could see no more than a spoilt and overconfident son dragging the whole family into social disgrace. So they were content to wound each other in the dark.

Boris Karloff as the Monster (For source of image see link)

Boris Karloff as the Monster (For source of image see link)

His Traits as an Adult

Empathy was never Shelley’s strong suit in his personal life in spite of his compassionate identification with the oppressed in the political sphere.

This lack was dramatically displayed in the tactless treatment of the Elizabeth Hitchener’s father: this lady was risking her good name by developing a close relationship with him as a married man of dubious reputation. In a letter responding to Mr Hitchener’s concerns, Shelley wrote (page 141):

‘What the world thinks of my actions ever has, & I trust ever will be a matter of complete indifference. Your daughter shares this sentiment with me, and we are both resolved to refer our actions to one tribunal only, that which Nature has implanted in us.’

Holmes’s comment says it all: ‘It was a lapse typical of Shelley, typical of his blind self-assertion and sudden explosions of high-mindedness.’ His subsequent behaviour towards her, as the relationship cooled on his side, indicated that he did not have the faintest idea about the damaging impact of all this on the life situation of a vulnerable woman of lower social status who had, up to that point, been establishing the viable foundation for a secure future. His conduct put this completely in jeopardy. I also recognise we are speaking of a nineteen-year-old youth – given the prominence of Isis/Daesh and the prevalence of narcissism, not a male age group renowned at present for its sensitivity and wisdom. However, Shelley’s conduct frequently placed him close to the extreme end of the inconsideration spectrum.

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. Shelley himself wrote of the monster (page 334):

‘Treat a person ill and he will become wicked.’ . . . . ‘It is thus that too often in society those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed by neglect and solitude of heart into a scourge and a curse.’ Implicitly, Shelley accepted his own identification as Frankenstein’s monster.

Clairmont in 1819, painted by Amelia Curran (for source of image see link)

Claire Clairmont in 1819, painted by Amelia Curran (for source of image see link)

It is important to balance this with the generosity of his eventual treatment of Claire Clairmont at the time she was pregnant with Byron’s daughter (page 343). He admittedly had, unusually for him, a strong and protective connection with her, whose exact basis is hard to disentangle. Fiona MacCarthy, in her 2002 biography of Byron, is very clear (page 297-98) that ‘despite their close interdependence there was no evidence of a sexual bond between Shelley and Claire.’ There may have been such a connection at a later date, but this has not been confirmed beyond all doubt. Nevertheless, throughout the remainder of his short life he put himself out and sacrificed much to support her in her difficulties.

Shelley’s relationship with Byron was made more complex by his need to act as Claire’s advocate with Byron in terms of the future of their daughter, Allegra. Even without that, as MacCarthy indicates in her  biography of Byron (page 298), their relationship would always have been pulled in at least two directions:

They fascinated, maddened one another. Intellectually compatible they were yet poles apart, Byron upholding the traditional and factual bases of philosophical argument, Shelley pursuing the further reaches of the experimental and visionary.

It is also true that Byron found it helpful that there was someone else around whose behaviour was even more openly unconventional than his own.

As he grew older, though still only in his twenties which he never outgrew, his health was also becoming a problem. Holmes detects three aspects (page 143): ‘hysterical and nervous attacks after periods of great strain,’ symptoms of a chronic disease associated with his kidneys and bladder’ and an interconnected ‘psycho-somatic area.’

He was not completely blind to his socially destructive impulses but was rarely able to curb them. Commenting on a letter Shelley wrote to William Godwin, with whom his relationship was positive at that point, Holmes writes (page 145):

It was a warm and touching letter. In the intellectual presence of one he felt he could trust, Shelley’s sense of personal inadequacy is revealing. He was rarely able to admit his own impatience and his own bitterness of feeling; more usually he was ‘unimpeached and unimpeachable.’

Incidentally, as his closeness to Godwin increased so did his distance from Elizabeth Hitchener, a painful development for her given how costly her association with Shelley was proving: Holmes (page 175) feels his behaviour demonstrated ‘a certain callous indifference to those he has grown disenchanted with.’

Another developing friendship, this time with the satirically inclined Thomas Love Peacock, helped him begin to learn how to ‘mock his own enthusiasms’ (page 174).

There was then an incident in Tremadoc, whose exact details are difficult to disentangle. It involved gunfire at night and what seemed to Shelley and his immediate relations to be a politically motivated attempt upon his life by disaffected locals whom his behaviour had antagonised. This, combined with his reaction to the Ireland experience, meant (page 198) that ‘he never returned’ to ‘political activism again.’ From that point on ‘Shelley regarded himself as a mouthpiece rather than as an instrument for political change.’ In a famous later phrase, he became ‘the trumpet of a prophecy,’ but ‘not the sword.’

Later still there was possibly an even more critical event: the suicide of his first wife, Harriet, to which his own callous disregard for her had made a special contribution. 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 was because of the pain Shelley was causing those close to him that the painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon, described Shelley (page 360) as ‘hypocritical’ for criticising Wordsworth for his indifference to the suffering of trout that had been caught. Haydon, after a bruising interaction as a Christian with Shelley’s militant atheism, found him proud, ‘domineering and insensitive.’ Hazlitt, for his part, felt he was (page 362) a ‘philosophic fanatic,’ and described him as a ‘man in knowledge, [but] a child of feeling.’

His Atheism

The issue of Shelley’s atheism may not be as straightforward as many, including Holmes, have liked to think.

I feel that he was probably not atheist in the sense that Dawkins uses the word. His prose, poetry and scribbled drafts are littered with such expressions (Ann Wroe’s Being Shelley page 157) as ‘One mind, the type of all . . .,’ ‘Great Spirit,’ ‘Immortal Deity/Whose throne is in the Heaven depth of Human thought,’ or, as I have just recently read in Epipsychidion, ‘The spirit of the worm beneath the sod/In love and worship, blends itself with God.’

In an address in 2008 on The Spiritual Foundation of Human Rights, Suheil Bushrui quotes from one of the best stanzas in Shelley’s uneven Adonais to prove he was a believer in the Absolute:

Each of the founders of the world’s religions has spoken of the Absolute, the one fountain of light and moral guidance, so eloquently expressed by Shelley in Adonais, his noble elegy written on the death of his fellow poet, John Keats:

‘The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.’

I think we can be certain, though, that Shelley did not believe in the same God as his Christian contemporaries.

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. Much of his poetry tacitly accepts the existence of a superhuman ‘Power,’ but its moral character is not always clear. . . . He could also contemplate the possibility of the universe without a creator. If any phrase were used to encapsulate his position, it might be ‘awful doubt[1]’ – a feeling of awe for the power evident in the natural world, mixed with scepticism as to whether it reveals a divine presence.

We will complete this race through Shelley’s life tomorrow.

Footnote:

[1] Mont Blanc line 77.

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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.

800px-John_Everett_Millais_-_Ophelia_-_Google_Art_Project

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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Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Abdu’l-Bahá said…: ‘All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God.’

(Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1954), p. 167)

The Art, Life and the Artist

One reason I persisted in reading on against the current of my initial antipathy was that Shelley’s life, as the earlier posts and what follows later will clarify, illustrates an aspect of the complex relationship between creativity and personality – something I very much want to understand more fully and more directly for myself.

There are many theories and ideas about this whole multi-faceted area.

A Psychological Take

I’ve posted earlier my sense of Baumeister and Tierney’s position on the tendency of great creativity to be paired with chaotic or even destructive tendencies (cf also my posts on Dickens). They raise the question of whether the discrepancy between a lofty art and a debased life could stem from what they term ‘ego depletion.’ ‘Ego’ is used here to mean the faculty of self-regulation. They contend (Kindle Reference 428):

Restraining sexual impulses takes energy, and so does creative work. If you pour energy into your art, you have less available to restrain your libido.

They are aware that there are exceptions to this correlation, quoting Anthony Trollope as one example, and that there are ways of reducing the strain on self-control by automating the grunt work of creativity by regular habit. However, I am uncomfortable in accepting that this is the only or even the best explanation of this pattern.

There are many who continue to argue that creativity goes with some form of ‘mental illness,’ such as bipolar disorder. Again, not a complete or adequate explanation, as we will see in a later post.

A Spiritual Perspective

Maitreyabandhu has a subtle take on this whole issue. He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2012, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

I will be returning in far more detail to his perspective in the final sequence of posts.

With Shelley we can immediately see how hard it was for him to express his compassionate ideals in his personal life. There was a strong element of narcissism that kept dragging him down, so that his indifference to the suffering he caused to those closest to him was bordering on brutal at times, even though he wept at the idea of the poor dying in the streets. I will be looking more closely at how life gradually helped him lift himself above this trap more often as he got older. Sadly, we will never know how high he might have been able to climb had he lived longer.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Morality and Art

Defining the relationship between the artist’s work and the artist’s life can raise serious issues that are not easy to resolve even if we can have access to all the necessary information.

For example, on 17 October, The Guardian published an interesting examination of this problem triggered by the court’s having ordered the destruction of original photographs, some historic and some by Ovenden himself, in the possession of Graham Ovenden, a convicted paedophile. Emine Saner wrote:

Can you ever divorce an artist’s life from their work? “Knowing Van Gogh shot himself, does that change the way you look at his paintings? Caravaggio was a murderer – does that make you look at him differently?” . . . . .

The attitude, says art writer Jonathan Jones, “where people [think] the art exists in its own sphere – I think that’s not true at all. Ovenden’s art probably does reflect aspects of his life we now find deeply troubling.” The question of how harshly we should judge the art by its artist remains. Can you read Alice in Wonderland in the same way when you’ve seen Lewis Carroll’s photographs of naked girls? Or listen to Benjamin Britten’s work, knowing he wrote great music for children, with such attention, because he had an obsession with pubescent boys (as detailed in John Bridcut’s 2006 biography)?

There are even questions, often raised by the surviving family, of what it is permissible to publish about an artist’s life, which makes this area even more difficult to grapple with because we are then deprived for sure of all we need to know. The most recent such furore has been about Jonathan Bates’s unauthorized biography of the late poet laureate, Ted Hughes. Bates’s freedom to quote was seriously curtailed, as a Guardian review explains:

As has been widely reported, he began his work on a “literary life” with the support of the Ted Hughes estate, controlled by the poet’s widow Carol. Late in the day this support was withdrawn: evidently, his researches were not purely “literary” enough. Permission for any substantial quotation from Hughes’s writing was also withdrawn, and Bate’s Unauthorised Life has to grapple with this ban.

The debate is heated. Adam Begley perhaps the defined the crucial issue best when he wrote recently:

Perhaps the answer is to divide the biographical mission into halves. A biographer engaged in research should be shameless, free of compunction and squeamishness. Every fact, no matter how sordid, whether plucked from the archives or the trash can, should be grist for the mill. Snobbish convictions about propriety and highbrow notions about the elevated status of art should be banished – but only until it comes time to tell the life story, at which point the biographer’s shamelessness must be put to good use. Any dirt dug up must tell us something essential about the person under scrutiny, about the work accomplished, about the achievement that makes the life worth examining.

Easier said than done, I suspect, as did Henry James also, when he penned his pointed dissection of the mind of a digger of bio-dirt – The Aspern Papers. Very appropriately for present purposes the short story was based on an attempt by Edward Silsbee to elicit documents about Shelley from Claire Clairmont shortly before she died (cf Richard Holmes – Shelley: the pursuit (page 733). The acid tone of the book can be sampled in the narrator’s reflection on his approach as he speaks to the niece of the lady who has the papers he longs to get his hands on: ‘I felt particularly like the reporter of a newspaper who forces his way into a house of mourning.’

Clearly, at such a remove in time and after so many relevant papers have been suppressed and destroyed, we will never be completely sure where the truth lies (can the truth lie?) in Shelley’s case. I’ll continue to have a stab at it none the less. I’ve come too far now to turn back!

subliminal

Source of Inspiration

In addition, there is the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Are the person and the poet not quite the same? May they be almost completely distinct as Shelley felt?

Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FHW Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ Their book explores in depth the full complexity of our relationship with our unconscious processes. They give many examples of how people are simply not aware of complex and coherent processes at work beneath the surface of awareness. This makes taking a simplistic line which links the person we see with the source of the poetry tempting but deceptive. It is probable that, at the very least, the source of poetry is not completely reducible to the visible influences of a poet’s life. It may even, with the best poetry, be largely the product of invisible unconscious creative processes.

Even so, ‘subliminal uprush’ could be a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live.

At a more prosaic level and looking at external influences, Ludwig Tuman makes a telling point in his excellent survey of creativity and spirituality (page 19) when he draws the distinction between those who work within a global framework and those who work within a more circumscribed tradition:

The approach taken by an artist whose creative work draws its inspiration or its substance more from outlying cultures than from that of his native land, will in this book be called the global approach.

Since the Nineteenth Century this approach has become increasingly practicable for more and more artists.  Nonetheless he feels we should not disparage ‘work’ which ‘draws more on [the artist’s] traditional culture.’  This he terms ‘the traditional approach.’

A third element is perhaps worth mentioning here. Last month, there was a programme on the BBC called Wider Horizons, which focused on the music of David Gilmour, best known as a member of the band Pink Floyd. It became very clear that his creativity was in part fostered by a network of close contemporary collaborators including Phil Manzanera, a record producer and Roxy Music guitarist, and Gilmour’s wife, Polly Samson, who writes many of his lyrics.

What is also true of Gilmour, and all other creative artists as far as I can tell, – the same mysterious element Myers strove to define – also comes across from the programme. Interviewed by Alan Yentob he attempts to describe the experience of realising a song is emerging:

Every once in a while an idea will force its way to the surface of my mind. When I’m trying to write a lyric, a song about . . . . but I’ve got no way of predicting where that’s going to go in the future. I keep thinking that there is a little door, a little key that I can open and I’ll suddenly find a way that would make it slightly simpler for me to move those things forwards and define them, ‘cos there’s plenty to write about, but I haven’t yet really pinned that down.

A Historical Angle

Also there are those who locate the problem of a problematic life and the kind of art it permits as deriving principally from the 19th Century onwards. For example, Ludwig Tuman in his exploration of the role of art – Mirror of the Divine – (page 102) argues that:

[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

This would suggest that this model of explanation – great art tends to emanate from disreputable artists –  would be only of limited use. I intend to keep an open mind on that one. One of the most obvious contaminating factors to any examination of the evidence on this issue would be the fact that evidence is less readily available the further back in history you look. This might not simply be a question of more time means more accidental loss: in other earlier periods contemporaries might have been even more motivated than the Victorians to exalt the reputation of their great artists, as well as less concerned than we are to preserve every scrap of information.

Problems of Definition

Tuman also makes a compelling case that defining precisely any of the variables, such as the quality of the art or the moral rectitude of the artist, is almost impossible and concludes (page 99):

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.

He does contend, even so, that there will be a correlation between the quality of the art and the character of the artist because, as a Bahá’í, he is convinced that you cannot completely separate external action from inner state, even if no one outside the artist can define the relationship exactly in any given case. He takes the reach of this belief beyond the realm of art to include everything we do and makes a very telling point towards the end of his chapter on this issue (page 108):

One of the reasons that the world is in such a chaotic state is that professionals are trained for their calling technically, but are often not prepared spiritually

Where does this leave me?

Perhaps because of all this confusion of views, I feel I need to look at this whole issue more deeply for myself. Admittedly I’m not going to be doing thorough systematic studies across large populations of people. For example, if we are to test out the ‘ego depletion’ hypothesis we need to do a prospective study of creative artists which compares their level of work intensity with, say, lawyers, accounts, psychologists, and, if we are to take Maitreyabandhu’s point seriously, a group of meditators who also work hard at some vocation. I’m not up for that level of exploration.

I am choosing instead to embark, as time permits, on a reading of diverse biographies, particularly of more or less equally famous and hard working people from diverse backgrounds, many but not all of them creative artists of some kind, to see what patterns if any emerge.

In terms of the present, possibly over-ambitious exercise, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of what we learnt about Shelley from a whirlwind tour of his life before seeing what, if anything, that might imply about his poetry. In doing so I need to bear in mind all the strictures and caveats I’ve just been quoting. I’m not sure I can do this well so early in my learning process, but I’m going to have a go.

What we’ve learnt about Shelley so far

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source of image see link

In the first post, for those who may not have read it, I described Shelley’s dark situation and character contradictions in fairly stark terms.

He was a poet living in a time of terror: terror visited by his own state upon its own people, and recent terror overseas, both during and in the wake of revolution. During his career as a poet he behaved oppressively to most of the women closest to him, one of them committing suicide partly as a result of his indifference to her suffering. He also displayed great courage in speaking out for the oppressed in his society, at the risk of imprisonment and possibly even death.

I quoted his sonnet about Ozymandias to illustrate how powerfully he understood the emptiness and vanity of power and wealth. His sonnet about the condition of England in 1819 as George III was dying, which I also quoted, showed his compassion for the poorest in his society when he wrote of ‘[a] people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,’ and looked forward in hope to the possible redemption of his society.

After looking at his early life of privilege and, while at home, his domination of his younger sisters, tempered by his later experiences of being cruelly bullied at both his schools, I quoted the conclusion Holmes came to as his biographer (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.

Later years saw his continuing love of the macabre and episodes of hysterical intensity. His close relationships continued to reveal a lack of empathy and this could be exacerbated by his intense idealism. So much so, that it was tempting to conclude that he had invested a huge amount of ego in the ideals he chose to espouse. It took much suffering, his own and other people’s, to shift the tight grip of Narcissus on his thinking.

That he could be generous is shown by his consistent support for Claire Clairmont after her affair with Byron and the birth of their daughter, Allegra. His protracted negotiations with Byron on Claire’s behalf also show that he could be perceptive and diplomatic when he saw the compelling need, as he did in this case.

Holmes’s conclusion about Shelley at this time was that he was not completely blind to his socially destructive impulses but was rarely able to curb them. Commenting on a letter Shelley wrote to William Godwin, with whom his relationship was positive at that point, Holmes writes (page 145):

It was a warm and touching letter. In the intellectual presence of one he felt he could trust, Shelley’s sense of personal inadequacy is revealing. He was rarely able to admit his own impatience and his own bitterness of feeling; more usually he was ‘unimpeached and unimpeachable.’

A key event that helped Shelley mature was the suicide of his first wife. Claire Clairmont 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.’

The really difficult bit starts on Thursday – trying to map some of this at least onto the development of Shelley’s poetry! I’ll begin with a review of key moments in that trajectory followed, in a later group of posts in this sequence, by reflections on where that leaves me as I try to articulate my own sense of the issue in a wider perspective.

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The Massacre at Paris 1792 Plundering the King´s Cellar at Paris (for source of image see link)

The Massacre at Paris 1792, a tendentious English take on the matter (for source of image see link)

Well is it with the king who keepeth a tight hold on the reins of his passion, restraineth his anger and preferreth justice and fairness to injustice and tyranny.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 65)

As I indicated towards the end of the last post, as my reading of Richard Holmes’s 700 page account of Shelley’s life moved forward, though I lost none of my reservations about the man, they became balanced both by examples of his capacity for kindness at times and by the increasing depth and accessibility of his poetry.

I was also powerfully struck by how relevant his challenges and concerns still are to our world today. We also, as he was, are living in a country which watches terror abroad afraid that it will come to haunt us at home. Even though the desire for liberty had inspired the French Revolution, by the time the Jacobins gained power ruthless oppression had betrayed its original ideals, a pattern that Shelley, for reasons we’ll explore soon, became aware would tend to repeat itself. We have seen many of those repetitions take place across the world since his day, most conspicuously, but by no means only, in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China.

As I explained last time, I will be starting with a helicopter survey of Shelley’s life. Next week I’ll be looking at some ideas about the life/art relationship in general before taking a closer look at Shelley’s poetry prior to attempting to formulate a model of creativity from the wreckage.

Early Influences

In childhood, it would seem, Shelley ruled the roost (page 3):

Bysshe, the favourite of the servants, and secure in his position as tribal chief, ran riot at Field Place [his childhood home].

His time at boarding school was a torment but he had two factors that helped him reduce the impact of the incessant bullying (page 5):

One was his imaginary world of monsters and demons and apparitions. The other was an unexpected discovery – he found he had inherited something his grandfather’s character, and had a violent and absolutely ungovernable temper once he grew angry.

The latter characteristic posed a problem for Shelley though (ibid.):

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.

There are no reminiscences recorded by either of his parents about Shelley: all we know is that, as a child, he found his mother (page 11) ‘increasingly distant and unresponsive, and there are indications that he felt deeply rejected.’ His later relationship with his father, after the age of 18, was extremely fractious. He (page 12) ‘dramatised him as the worst kind of tyrant and hypocrite.’

While Holmes warns us to treat these ‘melodramatic’ descriptions with caution, they are very revealing about Shelley’s ‘mythopoeic faculty,’ a major factor in his later creativity. Later (page 105) Holmes indicates, in the accounts Shelley gave of his childhood, that he ‘could be very unscrupulous in adjusting the truth when the need arose,’ but that ‘it is difficult to tell how far Shelley really realised – or admitted to himself – what he was doing.’

Schooldays

A school contemporary at Syon House described him (page 13) as having ‘considerable political talent, accompanied by a violent and extremely excitable temper.’

Shelley was also fascinated by science (page 16) in a ‘speculative and imaginative’ fashion, though ‘more naturally inclined to the field of social sciences – sociology, psychology, even parapsychology – than the physical ones.’

On his return to Field Place, the home of his childhood, after two years at Syon House, we see an escalation in the problematic side of his character (page 17):

Shelley’s natural mischievousness had become more uncontrollable, his games and experiment more violent, and his authority over his sisters more domineering.

A streak of indifference to others’ feelings, even cruelty, became apparent:

Shelley suggested that he will be able to cure his [sister’s] chilblains by [a] method of electrification, but his sister’s ‘terror overwhelmed all other feelings’ and she complained to their parents. Shelley was required to desist.

At Oxford he was later to torment his scout’s son, who had learning disabilities, with the same threat of electrification. His time at Eton replicated his experiences at Syon House, if not worse (page 19) since ‘the bullying by his fellow pupils was extremely severe.’ His experiences with authority were stained with the same dye so that (page 20):

He remembered these first years at Eton with an intensity of loathing that affected many of his later attitudes towards organised authority and social conformism.

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. Here seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

Mary Shelley's portrait by Richard Rothwell (for source of image see link)

Mary Shelley’s late portrait by Richard Rothwell (for source of image see link)

Briefly at Oxford

In his brief time at Oxford, before being sent down for publishing a pamphlet on atheism, he developed a close friendship with Thomas Jefferson Hogg, the co-author of the pamphlet. Hogg has much to say about his impressions of Shelley. There was much he could not explain (page 42):

The fascination with firearms was one of many elements in Shelley’s character which Hogg, a very down-to-earth personality despite all his masterly sarcasms, could never really account for. Another was Shelley’s almost maniac disregard, on certain occasions, for the commonplace decencies of normal public behaviour, as the time when he seized a baby out of his mother’s arms while crossing Magdalen Bridge and began earnestly to question it about the nature of its Platonic pre-existence so that he might prove a point in an argument he was having with Hogg concerning metempsychosis. A third, and even more significant facet, which Hogg all his life tended to discount as mere comic ‘fancy,’ was Shelley’s natural and sometimes overwhelming sense of the macabre.

He delighted in ‘ritual horror sessions’ throughout his life and they were a constant marker of ‘the darker side of Shelley’s personality’ (pages 260-61). It is hardly surprising then that the most famous novel his second wife, Mary, ever wrote was Frankenstein.

He was also prone (page 114) to ‘attacks of hysteria; at its most extreme this could involve a screaming fit and complete prostration, and he would have to be put to bed and nursed.’

When the relationship with his father was moving towards meltdown over Shelley’s unorthodox behaviour and atheistic views, their shared inability to empathise with each other sank their chances of reconciliation (page 59):

Shelley could see no more than theological hypocrisy and paternal treachery; while Timothy could see no more than a spoilt and overconfident son dragging the whole family into social disgrace. So they were content to wound each other in the dark.

Boris Karloff as the Monster (For source of image see link)

Boris Karloff as the Monster (For source of image see link)

His Traits as an Adult

Empathy was never Shelley’s strong suit in his personal life in spite of his compassionate identification with the oppressed in the political sphere.

This lack was dramatically displayed in the tactless treatment of the Elizabeth Hitchener’s father: this lady was risking her good name by developing a close relationship with him as a married man of dubious reputation. In a letter responding to Mr Hitchener’s concerns, Shelley wrote (page 141):

‘What the world thinks of my actions ever has, & I trust ever will be a matter of complete indifference. Your daughter shares this sentiment with me, and we are both resolved to refer our actions to one tribunal only, that which Nature has implanted in us.’

Holmes’s comment says it all: ‘It was a lapse typical of Shelley, typical of his blind self-assertion and sudden explosions of high-mindedness.’ His subsequent behaviour towards her, as the relationship cooled on his side, indicated that he did not have the faintest idea about the damaging impact of all this on the life situation of a vulnerable woman of lower social status who had, up to that point, been establishing the viable foundation for a secure future. His conduct put this completely in jeopardy. I also recognise we are speaking of a nineteen-year-old youth – given the prominence of Isis/Daesh and the prevalence of narcissism, not a male age group renowned at present for its sensitivity and wisdom. However, Shelley’s conduct frequently placed him close to the extreme end of the inconsideration spectrum.

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. Shelley himself wrote of the monster (page 334):

‘Treat a person ill and he will become wicked.’ . . . . ‘It is thus that too often in society those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed by neglect and solitude of heart into a scourge and a curse.’ Implicitly, Shelley accepted his own identification as Frankenstein’s monster.

Clairmont in 1819, painted by Amelia Curran (for source of image see link)

Claire Clairmont in 1819, painted by Amelia Curran (for source of image see link)

It is important to balance this with the generosity of his eventual treatment of Claire Clairmont at the time she was pregnant with Byron’s daughter (page 343). He admittedly had, unusually for him, a strong and protective connection with her, whose exact basis is hard to disentangle. Fiona MacCarthy, in her 2002 biography of Byron, is very clear (page 297-98) that ‘despite their close interdependence there was no evidence of a sexual bond between Shelley and Claire.’ There may have been such a connection at a later date, but this has not been confirmed beyond all doubt. Nevertheless, throughout the remainder of his short life he put himself out and sacrificed much to support her in her difficulties.

Shelley’s relationship with Byron was made more complex by his need to act as Claire’s advocate with Byron in terms of the future of their daughter, Allegra. Even without that, as MacCarthy indicates in her  biography of Byron (page 298), their relationship would always have been pulled in at least two directions:

They fascinated, maddened one another. Intellectually compatible they were yet poles apart, Byron upholding the traditional and factual bases of philosophical argument, Shelley pursuing the further reaches of the experimental and visionary.

It is also true that Byron found it helpful that there was someone else around whose behaviour was even more openly unconventional than his own.

As he grew older, though still only in his twenties which he never outgrew, his health was also becoming a problem. Holmes detects three aspects (page 143): ‘hysterical and nervous attacks after periods of great strain,’ symptoms of a chronic disease associated with his kidneys and bladder’ and an interconnected ‘psycho-somatic area.’

He was not completely blind to his socially destructive impulses but was rarely able to curb them. Commenting on a letter Shelley wrote to William Godwin, with whom his relationship was positive at that point, Holmes writes (page 145):

It was a warm and touching letter. In the intellectual presence of one he felt he could trust, Shelley’s sense of personal inadequacy is revealing. He was rarely able to admit his own impatience and his own bitterness of feeling; more usually he was ‘unimpeached and unimpeachable.’

Incidentally, as his closeness to Godwin increased so did his distance from Elizabeth Hitchener, a painful development for her given how costly her association with Shelley was proving: Holmes (page 175) feels his behaviour demonstrated ‘a certain callous indifference to those he has grown disenchanted with.’

Another developing friendship, this time with the satirically inclined Thomas Love Peacock, helped him begin to learn how to ‘mock his own enthusiasms’ (page 174).

There was then an incident in Tremadoc, whose exact details are difficult to disentangle. It involved gunfire at night and what seemed to Shelley and his immediate relations to be a politically motivated attempt upon his life by disaffected locals whom his behaviour had antagonised. This, combined with his reaction to the Ireland experience, meant (page 198) that ‘he never returned’ to ‘political activism again.’ From that point on ‘Shelley regarded himself as a mouthpiece rather than as an instrument for political change.’ In a famous later phrase, he became ‘the trumpet of a prophecy,’ but ‘not the sword.’

Later still there was possibly an even more critical event: the suicide of his first wife, Harriet, to which his own callous disregard for her had made a special contribution. 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 was because of the pain Shelley was causing those close to him that the painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon, described Shelley (page 360) as ‘hypocritical’ for criticising Wordsworth for his indifference to the suffering of trout that had been caught. Haydon, after a bruising interaction as a Christian with Shelley’s militant atheism, found him proud, ‘domineering and insensitive.’ Hazlitt, for his part, felt he was (page 362) a ‘philosophic fanatic,’ and described him as a ‘man in knowledge, [but] a child of feeling.’

His Atheism

The issue of Shelley’s atheism may not be as straightforward as many, including Holmes, have liked to think.

I feel that he was probably not atheist in the sense that Dawkins uses the word. His prose, poetry and scribbled drafts are littered with such expressions (Ann Wroe’s Being Shelley page 157) as ‘One mind, the type of all . . .,’ ‘Great Spirit,’ ‘Immortal Deity/Whose throne is in the Heaven depth of Human thought,’ or, as I have just recently read in Epipsychidion, ‘The spirit of the worm beneath the sod/In love and worship, blends itself with God.’

In an address in 2008 on The Spiritual Foundation of Human Rights, Suheil Bushrui quotes from one of the best stanzas in Shelley’s uneven Adonais to prove he was a believer in the Absolute:

Each of the founders of the world’s religions has spoken of the Absolute, the one fountain of light and moral guidance, so eloquently expressed by Shelley in Adonais, his noble elegy written on the death of his fellow poet, John Keats:

‘The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.’

I think we can be certain, though, that Shelley did not believe in the same God as his Christian contemporaries.

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. Much of his poetry tacitly accepts the existence of a superhuman ‘Power,’ but its moral character is not always clear. . . . He could also contemplate the possibility of the universe without a creator. If any phrase were used to encapsulate his position, it might be ‘awful doubt[1]’ – a feeling of awe for the power evident in the natural world, mixed with scepticism as to whether it reveals a divine presence.

We will complete this race through Shelley’s life on Thursday.

Footnote:

[1] Mont Blanc line 77.

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