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Out of Control: The Case of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Out of Control: The Case of Percy Bysshe Shelley

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March 17, 2011

December 2007 -- The first question to ask upon starting up a vehicle should be: “Where are the brakes?” The first question to ask upon adopting a philosophy should be the same. For the ability that allows a person to deal with philosophical ideas is the same ability that permits him to draw from those ideas whatever conclusions he wishes. As witness, we need only consider the record of the last two centuries.

It is a tale of brilliant men—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Auguste Comte—who began with a few semi-plausible thoughts and drew from them such absurd conclusions that they injured and grieved virtually all of their acquaintances (and eventually millions more). Only a permanent brake on such out-of-control theorizing can provide the insurance one needs against being led astray, by oneself or by another.

These reflections are prompted by a new biography of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: Ann Wroe’s Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself. Less appreciated in his own day than his friend Lord Byron, Shelley became in later eras the very model of the Romantic poet—an ethereal spirit of soaring imagination who perished before his time. Matthew Arnold famously called Shelley a “beautiful but ineffectual angel," but that view of Shelley was sheer illusion. More recent scholars have taken seriously the poet’s own view of himself as an uncompromising, revolutionary thinker and activist. Being Shelley does not dispute this new understanding but supplements it, by focusing on Shelley’s interior world of experiences, feelings, and ideas. In combination, the two approaches reveal a thinker who strove consciously to take Romantic morality to its logical conclusion—in poetry, in prose, and in life itself.

PASSIONS, PAMPHLETS, AND POEMS

The biography of Shelley is well known. Born in 1792, possessed of a brilliant mind and feminine beauty, Shelley was the eldest child of a wealthy country squire and M.P. After attending Eton, Shelley went to Oxford, where in February 1811 he published a 1,000-word pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. Confronted by the school authorities, Shelley would not admit to his authorship, and in March he was expelled for “contumacy in refusing to answer certain questions.” Following the expulsion, Shelley refused to continue his education at home and became increasingly estranged from his father. Five months after leaving Oxford, Shelley rescued from parental authority and school a 16-year-old friend of his sisters, Harriet Westbrook, by eloping with her. The couple then wandered through England, Ireland, and Wales distributing pamphlets that denounced the oppressions of religion, government, tradition, and custom. In 1813, Shelley brought out his first important poem, Queen Mab, whichassembledmany ofthe ideas of the French Enlightenment, from philosophic materialism to free love.

Shelley is revealed as a man of total self-absorption, moving like a tornado through the lives of others.

In 1814, Shelley met and ran off with Mary Godwin, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the radical political philosopher William Godwin, whom Shelley idolized and with whom he had been corresponding. Mary Godwin’s mother, who had died soon after her birth, was Mary Wollstonecraft, the proto-feminist. In 1816, Shelley published his second major work, Alastor, a 700-line poem in blank verse about the Romantic poet’s quest for transcendence. In 1817, Harriet Shelley committed suicide, which opened the way for Percy and Mary to marry. In 1818, Shelley published The Revolt of Islam, a poemthat tells of revolution and the growth of the human mind. Also in 1818, the Shelley household—comprising the poet, his wife, their three children, Mary’s stepsister Clair Claremont, and Allegra, Clair’s daughter by Lord Byron—left England to settle in Italy. During the next four years, Shelley wrote The Cenci, a verse tragedy of paternal oppression and incest; Prometheus Unbound, a cry against tyranny that many consider to be his masterpiece; Epipsychidion, a love poem that flowed from Shelley’s infatuation with the Countess Emilia Viviani; and Adonais, his elegy for John Keats. His last major work, Hellas (1822), was inspired by the Greek revolt against the Ottoman Empire, the same cause to which Byron would give his life two years later. In July 1822, Shelley drowned at sea while sailing heedlessly and insistently in the middle of a storm. Some weeks later, his body washed ashore and was cremated on the beach by friends.

To Romantics, Shelley’s life is a work of art in itself: the beautiful and brilliant youth, the rebellion against chains of every sort, the passionate loves, the magnificent poems, the early death. This is Romantic life as it might and ought to be, and it has served as an inspiration to millions of adolescents. The truth, however, is far less inspiring, yet all the more instructive for being so.

Shelley declared, in A Defence of Poetry, that “the story of particular facts is as a mirror which distorts and obscures that which should be beautiful.” Considered as an attack on artistic Naturalism, that is sound. But in the realm of biography, no approach could be more destructive. To make lives appear beautiful, when they are in fact plain or ugly, is nothing but dangerous enchantment, and its proper remedy is disillusionment. Fortunately, Richard Holmes’s Shelley: The Pursuit (1974) provides just such a disillusioning view of Shelley, and Paul Johnson has drawn upon it for a sketch of Shelley’s life in the book Intellectuals. When Wroe’s Being Shelley is read in the light of such works, it reveals a man of total self-absorption, moving like a tornado through the lives of others.

THE FALLEN ANGEL

But the first thing to realize about Shelley is that he began by destroying his own life, though he did not know it at the time, being only 19. His youthful essay The Necessity of Atheism, which got him expelled from Oxford, was simply an outpouring of ignorance. For instance, it presumed that the First Cause argument is designed to prove that the universe had a temporal beginning, which is just a mistake. Had Shelley stayed at Oxford, he might have learned that he was mistaken, and he might have learned that certain other of his adolescent beliefs were equally mistaken. But Shelley was not interested in such wisdom. No one can doubt that he became extremely well-read. But, like many another Romantic thinker, he extracted from his reading only the confirmation of what he already believed. For all his railing against “superstition,” he never accepted the notion that there exist hard facts to which the mind must conform. Thus, his atheism was not at all a by-product of cold rationality but a corollary of the Romantic fascination with things Gothic and conspiratorial. Writes Wroe: “The Atheist’s power to shock, thrill and offend continually delighted him. . . . Shelley loved the word ‘infidel.’”

Indeed, it was not Shelley’s atheism as such, but his desire to make it offensive to the world, that estranged him from his father. To family and friends, Shelley had made clear his anti-religious views well before Oxford and had even held semi-cordial debates with his father. For his part, Shelley’s father not only supported him at Oxford but also lined up publishers for his poetry. In return, it seems, Shelley agreed not to publicize his atheism beyond his own circle. “With respect to matters of belief,” he wrote his father, “I shall perfectly coincide with the opinions of the learned doctors, although by the very rules of reasoning which their own systems of logic teach me I could refute their errors.— I shall not therefore publicly come under the act ‘de heretico comburendo’ [regarding the burning of heretics].” On the very same day, Shelley was writing to a friend to announce that he had completed sending copies of The Necessity of Atheism to all the bishops and heads of colleges.

In light of such bare-faced deceit, it is small wonder that Shelley’s father concluded that his son’s views were not merely false but morally corrupting. When Shelley refused to return home and be tutored privately, he was given an allowance of £200 a year (about what a surgeon or clergyman earned). Yet he continued to write letters to his father that were alternately wheedling and abusive. When his sister became engaged to an ex-friend of his, Shelley wrote to his mother, accusing her of having had an affair with the man and using her daughter’s marriage to cover it up.

With the destruction of his parents’ lives thus underway, Shelley turned his attention to little Harriet Westbrook.

Defenders of Shelley often maintain that his critics are simply reactionaries. But in the matter of his behavior toward Harriet, Shelley has one critic whom no one could call reactionary: Mark Twain. Twain was not shocked by Shelley the adolescent, who wrote The Necessity of Atheism. But he was appalled by Shelley the man, who abandoned his children and pregnant young wife, and drove her to suicide. Twain’s essay “In Defense of Harriet Shelley” says of a typical pro-Shelley author: “In his view, Shelley’s first wife, free of all offense as we have historical facts for guidance, must be held unforgivably responsible for her husband’s innocent act in deserting her and taking up with another woman.” Which is exactly how Shelley saw the matter: He fled with Mary Godwin because Harriet had failed him—because she was not the Great Soul he deserved. Wroe tells us: “Since she did not understand his liberated way of love, since ‘It is no reproach to me that you have never filled my heart with an all-sufficing passion,’ she did not deserve to monopolise him.” A month later, he said: “I was an idiot to expect greatness or generosity from you.”

Unfortunately, Percy Shelley’s comeback is more as a philosopher than as a poet.

But what about his children by Harriet? Didn’t he love them? And weren’t they cruelly taken from him by a court that disapproved of his atheism? Well, his atheism surely did him no good in a British chancery court in 1817. But the case against Shelley rested less on his metaphysical beliefs than on his ethical beliefs. He had successfully preached free love to his wife and mistress when they were girls of sixteen. His daughter was then four. How soon would he begin to teach her the virtues of sexual emancipation? And as regards Shelley’s love for the children, Wroe says that he had described his feelings toward his little daughter, Ianthe, as “merely the result of ‘habit & self-persuasion.’” Revealingly, Shelley made no use of the monthly visiting rights awarded him by the court, and his only surviving letter to his children’s guardian is perfunctory in its inquiries about them, though full of wrath for his treatment.

COGITO, ERGO BUM

My object here is not to deplore the sins of one nineteenth-century poet, but to learn from them. History, said the Earl of Shaftesbury, is philosophy teaching by example, and no history is more philosophically instructive than biography, if it is written truthfully.

In the early twentieth century, the applause for Shelley’s work diminished, as many concurred with T.S. Eliot’s judgment that Shelley was a poet of adolescent protest. How seriously, after all, could one take the privileged heir of a wealthy Sussex baronet, when he cried out, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” In the last fifty years, however, Shelley has been making a comeback. Unfortunately, with the new recognition given to the importance Shelley’s ideas, it is more a comeback as a philosopher than as a poet, and Shelley was, by a very wide margin, a better poet than he was a philosopher. The evidence for that is simply that Shelley practiced what he preached, and he was a far worse man for being a philosopher: Cogito, ergo bum.

Shelley lacked utterly the one check that a philosopher needs to prevent runaway theorizing: a due respect for the sifted wisdom of mankind—a wisdom that has been, and constantly is being, tested and refined by generations of lives. It is a wisdom born of philosophic and literary genius, and a few of Shelley’s greatest passages will undoubtedly contribute to its growth. But because it is a wisdom manifest in tradition and custom, Shelley spurned it. Thus did he ruin the lives of those around him. And thus (with apt symbolism) did his own life end, at age twenty-nine, by an act of heedlessness, in ship-wreck.