What Shelley Knew

Shelley’s life was short, yet it is nearly impossible to write a short life of Shelley. So many happenings, private and public, affected his work that the biographer’s space begins to run out before the poet has written anything for which his life is worth remembering. And almost all he did and believed needs so much explaining that a mere summary of facts tends to sound like parody. The best short life, Edmund Blunden’s of 1946, it has a distinctly prewar flavor. Richard Holmes’s new single-volume biography is a very good book, compulsively readable, which really does make contemporary sense of Shelley and his friends.

Holmes’s introduction somewhat exaggerates the effect of the revolution in Shelley studies that has taken place in recent years. It is rash to say that, except for Yeats and Carl Grabo, “there is virtually no literary criticism or critical commentary which is worth reading before 1945.” Hungerford? Carlos Baker? K. N. Cameron? As early as 1924 Olwen Ward Campbell, almost in Holmes’s own words, was ridiculing the way Shelley had been “so tricked up in the frills and furbelows of sentimental scribblers…that many people think of him as a writer of enchanting lyrics, who was, in other respects, at best, one of God’s own fools.” Victorian opinion is generally squeezed very thin nowadays between Early Reception and Twentieth Century Judgment, but even in the days of idolatry there were true critics.

However, the perspective has certainly changed. For “the image of the gentle, suffering poet” Holmes substitutes “a darker and more earthly, crueller and more capable figure,” moving “through a bizarre though sometimes astonishingly beautiful landscape.” Holmes’s Shelley is in fact noticeably closer to the diabolically knowing innocent of David Levine’s cartoon on this page than to the portrait which Amelia Curran and her copyists steadily made less and less distinguishable from that of Beatrice Cenci (witness Easton’s newly found version of the Curran painting in Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin 23, 1972).

There is a little new material, but the book’s originality is essentially in its interpretations. Shelley the political animal is taken seriously: he was a fighter (as Kenneth Neill Cameron was the first to insist), and the Irish campaigns, in which, to Godwin’s horror, he tried by speeches and pamphlets to start a movement for the independence of Ireland, are treated without the caricature they usually invite. Since Leslie Stephen it has been axiomatic that Queen Mab is Godwin’s Political Justice versified, but Holmes shows that the poem owes relatively little directly to Godwin. I think that anyone who tries to annotate Queen Mab will agree.

The …

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