Sunday, April 6, 2014

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Miscellaneous Poems through 1817

Source of book: I own the complete Shelley.

I had to memorize “Ozymandias” in high school. I knew that Shelley was one of the Romantic poets, and died in a sailing accident. Oh, and he was married to Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. That was about it. For some reason, Shelley isn’t all that popular these days, although the rest of the romantics seem to have also fallen out of favor. Perhaps one or two Keats poems show up in a curriculum. Southey gets a sentence or two. Wordsworth lives on for a few Hallmark ready poems, while the bulk of his output goes unread.

Perhaps it is just a symptom of the general neglect of poetry these days. There also might be a bit of a problem that our cynical modern sensibilities have with the raw emotion and utter sincerity of Romantic era poetry. Pure feeling without the filter of snark and irony. Perhaps it only lives on in music, and even there, it is hard to find.

As regular blog readers know, I have been reading through my poetry collection. Not just browsing, but reading straight through to be sure not to miss any more than I have to. I try to find complete collections rather than “greatest hits” for that reason. It is the poetry equivalent of listening to albums rather than singles.

For this particular session, I chose to read Shelley’s shorter poems, starting from the earliest, and ending at 1817, because that seemed to be a reasonable amount. 

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint, 1819

Shelley never attained popularity during his lifetime, in part because he died young. He had great difficulty getting his works published, because of the fear of charges of sedition (for politically radical ideas) or blasphemy (for works unflattering to established religion.) Mary Shelley, however, persevered after his death, and was able to bring his works to light. They eventually came to be regarded as fine examples of lyric poetry, and in turn influenced future thinkers and writers, from Robert Browning to Oscar Wilde, to Henry David Thoreau.

All of the Romantics are best read and enjoyed without the steel colored glasses of sardonic detachment. Like the Psalms, they contain violent and unfiltered emotional power, hyperbole, and would sound silly or perhaps even psychologically unhinged if taken in the most literal - dare I say it? - prosaic sense. Let the feeling wash over, reflect, but leave cold, sensible calculation for another day.

Here is an example of the over-the-top romanticism:

To Constantia, Singing

Thus to be lost and thus to sink and die,
Perchance were death indeed!—Constantia, turn!
In thy dark eyes a power like light doth lie,
Even though the sounds which were thy voice, which burn
Between thy lips, are laid to sleep;
Within thy breath, and on thy hair, like odour, it is yet,
And from thy touch like fire doth leap.
Even while I write, my burning cheeks are wet.
Alas, that the torn heart can bleed, but not forget!
A breathless awe, like the swift change
Unseen, but felt in youthful slumbers,
Wild, sweet, but uncommunicably strange,
Thou breathest now in fast ascending numbers.
The cope of heaven seems rent and cloven
By the enchantment of thy strain,
And on my shoulders wings are woven,
To follow its sublime career
Beyond the mighty moons that wane
Upon the verge of Nature's utmost sphere,
Till the world's shadowy walls are past and disappear.
Her voice is hovering o'er my soul—it lingers
O'ershadowing it with soft and lulling wings,
The blood and life within those snowy fingers
Teach witchcraft to the instrumental strings.
My brain is wild, my breath comes quick—
The blood is listening in my frame,
And thronging shadows, fast and thick,
Fall on my overflowing eyes;
My heart is quivering like a flame;
As morning dew, that in the sunbeam dies,
I am dissolved in these consuming ecstasies.
I have no life, Constantia, now, but thee,
Whilst, like the world-surrounding air, thy song
Flows on, and fills all things with melody.—
Now is thy voice a tempest swift and strong,
On which, like one in trance upborne,
Secure o'er rocks and waves I sweep,
Rejoicing like a cloud of morn.
Now 'tis the breath of summer night,
Which when the starry waters sleep,
Round western isles, with incense-blossoms bright,
Lingering, suspends my soul in its voluptuous flight.

This one was rescued from Shelley’s manuscripts by Mary, and may not represent the final version. It is what we have, however, and I find it a fine example of the tribute to a lover or a muse, or perhaps a combination of the two.

I also liked “Marianne’s Dream,” which is a bit long to quote in full. It describes a dream told to him by a Mrs. Hunt, the “Marianne” of the title. The dream, like many, is filled with vague impressions and memorable, but unreal images. She dreams of clouds and a giant and ominous anchor. These give way to a city with towers and domes that becomes engulfed in flames before these are extinguished by the sea itself.

And now those raging billows came
Where that fair Lady sate, and she
Was borne towards the showering flame
By the wild waves heaped tumultuously.
And, on a little plank, the flow
Of the whirlpool bore her to and fro.

The flames were fiercely vomited
From every tower and every dome,
And dreary light did widely shed
O'er that vast flood's suspended foam,
Beneath the smoke which hung its night
On the stained cope of heaven's light.

The plank whereon that Lady sate
Was driven through the chasms, about and about,
Between the peaks so desolate
Of the drowning mountains, in and out,
As the thistle-beard on a whirlwind sails--
While the flood was filling those hollow vales.

At last her plank an eddy crossed,
And bore her to the city's wall,
Which now the flood had reached almost;
It might the stoutest heart appal
To hear the fire roar and hiss
Through the domes of those mighty palaces.

The eddy whirled her round and round
Before a gorgeous gate, which stood
Piercing the clouds of smoke which bound
Its aery arch with light like blood;
She looked on that gate of marble clear,
With wonder that extinguished fear.

That last line in particular thrills me. “With wonder that extinguished fear.” The whole poem is excellent.

I’ll also mention one of the first of his poems.

To _____  (1814)

Yet look on me -- take not thine eyes away,
Which feed upon the love within mine own,
Which is indeed but the reflected ray
Of thine own beauty from my spirit thrown.
Yet speak to me -- thy voice is as the tone
Of my heart's echo, and I think I hear
That thou yet lovest me; yet thou alone
Like one before a mirror, without care
Of aught but thine own features, imaged there;
And yet I wear out life in watching thee;
A toil so sweet at times, and thou indeed
Art kind when I am sick, and pity me. ...

This was probably written for his first wife, Harriet, who probably married him in part to escape a bad situation. It didn’t end well for her, with them breaking up a few years (and two kids) later. She then became pregnant by another man, and, thinking that he abandoned her (he was merely delayed in his return from overseas), she committed suicide. It’s a sad epilogue to what was once a grand passion. (His marriage to Mary also ended tragically, with his early death, but without the bitter heartbreak.)

I like melancholy poems - and melancholy music too. Thus, I’ll end on that sort of note, with this one.


We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly!--yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost forever:

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest.--A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise.--One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same!--For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.                        

Extremely simple and traditional in form, it expresses the certainty of change in the way that the best poetry can. Fleeting pictures, language that feels as we do but cannot state in so many words.

A note on Shelley’s journals:

Many of Shelley’s poems were never submitted for publication, and only came to light through the efforts of Mary Shelley.

Last week, our family took our annual excursion to the Huntington Library and Gardens. (I mentioned them, and their connection to the Railroad here.) We go primarily for the gardens, the art, and the rotating exhibitions. The library itself is primarily used by scholars. However, a few books are always on display. Some are standards, like the Gutenberg Bible, and a double elephant Audubon. (How big is that? Forget “coffee table” size. This book could double as your dinner table.)

This time, they had one of Shelley’s journals on display. All I can say is that Mary was a hero, because his handwriting is difficult at best.

No comments:

Post a Comment