I love the Romantic poets, and so I’m introducing their poetry to you, in a five-part series. This is part four, on Percy Bysshe Shelley.
These are complex writers, and so I’m using a particular method to give newcomers to an entry point to their poetry and their ideas about poetry: the Wordsworth method. This method assumes Wordsworth as the central Romantic poet, and introduces the other poets (Coleridge, Keats, Shelly, and Blake) in terms of how they differed from him, how they strove to distinguish themselves from him.
I must confess: I find Shelley difficult.
On the one hand, his poetry contains wonderful phrases and passages, moments that seem at once perfect “poetic” and perfectly natural. “Men scarcely know how beautiful fire is,” he writes in The Witch of Atlas, and much of his poetry has this hushed, perfected eloquence, such as this moment in Alastor:
“Among the ruined temples there,
Stupendous columns, and wild images
Of more than man, where marble daemons watch
The Zodiac’s brazen mystery, and dead men
Hang their mute thoughts on the mute walls”
“…His wan eyes
Gaze on the empty scene as vacantly
As ocean’s moon looks on the moon in heaven.”
On the other hand, Shelley combines this lyricism with a highly abstract, often didactic, high-toned vision of poetry, which, while admirable, I personally find hard to enjoy. Shelley is very taken with “starry domes,” “Numberless and immeasurable halls,” “fountains of divine philosophy,” which give his poetry at times a brittle tone. Whole stanzas of Adonias sound more like a quiz on Greek mythology than a coherent lyric or argument.
Part of the difficulty in reading Shelley comes from his response to Wordsworth. Shelley agreed that the world contained a “visionary gleam,” that a grander power or Spirit animated the world we live in, a power with a purpose and presence, but Shelley differed from Wordsworth in finding this power remote, incomprehensible, mutable. Whereas Wordsworth saw “that immortal sea / Which brought us hither” as something natural to the childlike mind, and the memory of its existence sufficient consolation to the adult grown unable to hear the waves of that sea, for Shelley, the situation is much more fraught.
The Spirit comes and departs, and without it, nature is not enough for us. Nature, in fact, can be an enemy, a siren luring us with “wiles,” distracting us from true beauty and power. Poetry should be a straining to detect the Spirit, not a description of real things and common feelings.
One gets the sense that to Shelley, nature is valuable to us because through it, we can sense the power that lies beyond. Nature is the gateway to grander things, and to mistake nature for them leads to ruin. Shelley says of the mountain, Mont Blanc:
“The secret Strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of Heaven is as a law, Inhabits thee!”
Shelley’s poetry contains a yearning to be caught up in this invisible otherness, and a demand that the “veil of life and death” drop from his eyes.
However, as Shelley grew older (he grew old as Wordworth did, but faster, doing everything in life faster), his hopes became more remote. And, as he demanded more of poetry and himself than Wordsworth, his fall was more extreme, too. His uncompleted late poem, The Triumph of Life, suggests that dull, inanimate life always wins, will always crush the spirit’s flame and nature’s beauty. The poem’s vision is of an endless crowd of humanity, following a chariot so bright it overwhelms the lights of nature and art:
“Old age and youth, manhood and infancy,
Mixed in mighty torrent did appear,
Some flying from the thing they feared, and some
Seeking the object of another’s fear.”
If you’ve read all of these intros, a theme may be coming clear. Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley were not poets that aged well. We can’t know how Keats would have developed, but looking at the other three, we see that the Romantics sought some kind of communion with a higher power or nature, and the possibility of this communion fuelled their early poetry. But their poetry became darker as this communion seemed to fail, as intensity and fire became rarer in life. As poets, their development is tragic.
It would be great if someone could explain why this happened, and suggest a less self-destructive way of being Romantic. The good news is that William Blake did exactly that. What makes Blake so remarkable, as a poet and thinker, is that he diagnosed the Romantic problem, recognised it in himself as an error, and propounded a solution, which the final post in this series will describe.
Stay tuned: next is William Blake.