The New Shelley: Later Twentieth-Century Views
Shelley's Poetry and Prose
The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts Volume XI: The Geneva Notebook of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley's Goddess: Maternity, Language, Subjectivity
The occasion of Shelley’s two hundredth birthday (August 4) reminds me of an open-air rock concert once given by the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park, London. Mick Jagger, wearing a white skirt, read out some “posy” for his drummer, Brian Jones, who had recently been drowned (not in the Gulf of Spezia but in his Surrey swimming pool). The posy was announced as a stanza of Shelley’s “Adonais”—
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep—
He hath awakened from the dream of life—
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy vi- sions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife…
Mick read it rather well in his South London drawl, holding an astonished crowd silent and sprawling on the summer grass, and then suddenly released thousands of multicolored butterflies—“Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!”—and burst into a rendition of “Sympathy for the Devil.”
The next day a British newspaper, grudgingly impressed but slightly misunderstanding Jagger’s pronunciation of “Shelley,” duly reported a memorable reading from the works of the Cuban revolutionary “Che” Guevara, and ironically praised Mick for his political correctness. Among much other commentary, no one remarked that the ecstatic cloud of butterflies had slowly drifted across the adjacent Serpentine, where Shelley’s first wife had also drowned.
The whole episode was exemplary: the confusion of poetry, politics, and intellectual fashion; the general uncertainty about “Shelley-Che’s” identity; and a pervading sense of the ironies of death and remembrance. One might call it the irony of elegy: of trying to turn the shifting word-cloud of one man’s life and work into a solid monument.
This year, Shelley has fared rather better. Professors (several of them Japanese) have gathered at the New York Public Library; international lecturers have discoursed at a grand palazzo in Rome; poets have congregated at Lerici and taken boat trips in the bay (no fatalities); conferences and exhibitions have been held as far apart as Prague, Pretoria, Sussex, and the Lake District. But the irony remains.
University College, Oxford, the institution which launched Shelley into social exile by firing him (the word seems appropriate) as the author of a philosophical pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism (1811), held a lavish black-tie Shelley Ball in June. With tickets at £72.50 each, there were dance bands, champagne, a Shelley-in-Italy pizza stall, and photographs at £10 a couple posed in front of Shelley’s marble monument with its weeping sea nymphs by E. Onslow Ford. But outside in the street, unemployed T-shirted protestors jeered and spat, howling that “Shelley was an anarchist, and these people kicked him out.” One could sense that the West Wind—“Destroyer and Preserver”—was still blowing hard.
Such contradictions strike me as perfectly proper. After two hundred years it is still not easy to answer the fundamental questions about Percy Bysshe Shelley (Sussex 1792–Tuscany 1822). In a very short lifetime he published twelve volumes of verse, four political pamphlets, and a verse play about incest; he fathered six (possibly seven) children; he wrote some…
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