Percy Bysshe Shelley was an intense, wordy young man. As I plowed through the Shelley selections in the Norton Anthology, I wondered why he was given so much more space than the other romantic poets. Then I did a calculation (can you tell I am wearying of the Romantics?) and found that Byron, Coleridge, and Shelley filled roughly 150 pages each and Wordsworth filled 250 pages.
How to explain why Shelley seemed so interminable? I love it that he is unconventional, intense, idealistic, and passionate about both art and about the equality of human beings; but I don’t find his personality all that appealing. He’s too self-absorbed and self-congratulatory for me. Every so often he introduces an idea that excites me only to have him dive into an adoring pool of his own language. When Shelley describes his poem “Adonais” as a “highly wrought piece of art” I think he’s talking about himself.
I’ve gotten used to the grandiosity of people who themselves aren’t writers (psychoanalysts come to mind) and who refuse to let anyone edit their papers. Writers need editors just as singers need other singers to listen to them. We all need someone to tell us what we sound like outside our own head.
But with Shelley it was an article of faith that he wasn’t to be edited. In his prose piece “A Defence of Poetry,” which I actually like and what’s more, mostly agree with, he says this about the creative process: “. . . the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within. . .” So far so good, but he goes on to say that once the composition begins, inspiration is on its decline and the finest passages of poetry are not “produced by labour and study,” and by the way, keep your hands off my poem. I made up that last part.
Shelley thinks that “the greatest poets have been men of the most spotless virtue” and “a poet is more delicately organized than other men.” I can forgive him his extravagant idealism and his grandiosity when I consider that he died at age 30, practically a boy, in a sailing accident. But it doesn’t make me want to spend any more time reading his unedited poems.
I enjoyed some of the shorter poems because I could keep track of what they were about from beginning to end. Many of the inclusions in the Norton anthology are abridged or excerpted. Those little ellipses that marked the end of an excerpt became my little friends. If I could just keep track of things until I got to the little ellipses, I could usually stay with the longer poem. Here are some of the lines I liked:
*“Sunset and its gorgeous ministers”— (“Alastor: or The Spirit of Solitude”)
*Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert—
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art. (“To a Skylark”)
*Music when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory.
Odours, when sweet violets sicken
Live within the sense they quicken.
Rose leaves when the rose in dead,
Are heaped for the beloved’s bed—
And so my thoughts when thou art gone,
Love itself will slumber on.
(“Music when soft voices die” –I sing this set to music by the inestimable Roger Quilter)
*Most musical of mourners, weep anew. . .
. . .Whilst burning thought the inmost veil of Heaven
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are. (Adonais)
*Best and brightest, come away! (“To Jane. The Invitation”)
*The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendor. . . (“Mont Blanc”)
*The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats through unseen among us,–visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower.
(“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”)