Being Shelley

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

During nearly the whole of his brief adult life span, Percy Bysshe Shelley was an outcast. Like Lord Byron, he scoffed at conventional society. He not only rejected the established Church but also proclaimed in a pamphlet his atheism, delivering his denunciation of Christianity to the authorities at Oxford University, an act of rebellion that resulted in his dismissal. Although other Romantic poets like William Wordsworth had been accused of impiety, Shelley went much further than any other poet of his age in positively rejecting organized and established religions.

Shelley refused to apologize to his father, Sir Timothy Shelley, for his disobedient actions. Indeed, the poet called his father a hypocrite and refused to accept the responsibilities of a man of his class and period. Family tradition meant nothing to the young poet. Indeed, Shelley refused to think of himself as part of a hereditary line. He wanted to create himselfas the subtitle of Ann Wroe’s biography, Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself, suggests.

Shelley is very modern in the sense that he is on a quest to find himself. This was the rather typical story of early nineteenth century Romantic poets, who sought the truths of the universe in their own selves. The experiencing self would discover the way to universal truths. Thus, Shelley rejected the status quo and the very idea that he was the product of his ancestors or of his contemporary age. He believed in radicalism and revolution.

Wroe believes that Shelley’s life and art can be best illuminated not by the conventional restraints of biographical narrative but rather through a Shelleyan structure: “Rather than writing the life of a man into which poetry erupts occasionally, my hope is to reconstruct the world of a poet into which earthly life keeps intruding. This, I believe is how things were for Shelley.” Shelley, in Wroe’s view, is only an extreme instance of what is true for all great writers: Their meaningful lives are not diurnal: “They live, and often move, elsewhere.”

Wroe’s book is divided in four parts: Earth, Water, Air, Fire. Her Shelley is forever plunging himself into the elements, dousing himself with water, for example, and shouting in ecstasy. He is tuning himself to the rhythms of nature, not of society, and he is exploring his capacity to absorb the world directly without the mediating factors of institutions and hierarchies.

Wroe’s Shelley lives inside his poetry, which creates an alternative to the corporeal existence he must perforce endure. He falls in love with Harriet Westbrook, but he soon tires of her when she cannot partake of his transcendent feelings. Why must she be so possessive? In the end, she is not worthy of the poet’s attention, and he abandons her. Not even her suicide occasions much distress in Shelleyalthough Wroe quotes a friend who unconvincingly insists that Harriet’s desperate act did disturb the poet. This shocking behavior appears less so in Wroe’s narrative because her own language so closely tracks the poet’s own. That Shelley enacts a similar disaster with his second wife, Mary Godwin, hardly matters insofar as Wroe shows that it could not be otherwise with Shelley. He was seeking soulmates, female and male, who yearned for a world beyond the proprieties of nineteenth century society. His second wife understood himafter all, she went on to create Frankenstein (1818), a searing study of the Romantic sensibilitybut she still could not stifle her jealousy and possessiveness, especially when she had to endure her husband’s infatuation with Claire Clairmont that was carried on in Mary’s own household.

Shelley is the least palpable of the Romantic poetsas is apparent by reading Wroe’s index references to “Death as lover,” “Dreams,” “Earth,” “Eternity,” “Life,” “Love,” “Mind,” “Self,” “Spirit,” “Truth,” “Will.” These abstract categories engross Shelley and his biographer precisely because they reflect his effort not only to reject the mundane and the jejune but also to create a new metaphysics of the self that would result, ultimately, in revolutionizing society and the way others think. If Shelley...

(The entire section is 1730 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Daily Telegraph, June 30, 2007, p. 24.

Evening Standard, June 25, 2007, p. 36.

The Guardian, July 21, 2007, p. 6.

Irish Times, September 1, 2007, p. 10.

The New Yorker 83, no. 25 (August 27, 2007): 85-89.

The Observer, July 1, 2007, p. 23.

Sunday Telegraph, July 15, 2007, p. 38.

Sunday Times, July 8, 2007, p. 40.

The Sydney Morning Herald, October 27, 2007, p. 39.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 20, 2007, p. 10.