Mad Shelley and His Bleeding Heart
Percy Bysshe Shelley is the most philanthropic, passionate, and pleading of all the Romantics. His passion for change and reform colour his life and works. While every poet of the Romantic era spoke of nature and love, Shelley was unusually intimate in sharing his personal experiences and optimistic hopes for humankind. Politics consumed much of his energy and he wrote to express his political frustrations and to enlighten the masses to the injustices which plagued them. Shelley fought to rally the oppressed in order to help them take a stand against their persecutors. Towards women, Shelley was empathetic and awestruck, continually fighting to tell their stories in an equal light during a time in which so many men wished to repress and dismiss the feminine mind. Empathy, justice, philosophy, religion, mutability and his own tragedies are the major drives behind Shelley’s work as he forever struggled with mortality during his short lifetime.
As with most of the poets assigned to the Romantic genre, Shelley believed true inner peace was grounded first in connecting with nature, but his ideas of how we can achieve this differentiates him from the others. Clouds, flowers, grass, and the moon are basic elements that make numerous appearances in Shelley’s poems, working to complement his ideas, usually on love or death. Shelley most often associates moons with death. In “The Sunset” a young couple meet “amid the blue noon’s burning sky” (528, line 35) but their fate is signaled to be twisting as the “broad and burning moon lingeringly rose / Between the black trunks of the crowded trees” (529, 18-19). The life and death contrast between the sun and moon is further spotlighted when it questions, “’Is it not strange, Isabel,’ said the youth, / ‘I never saw the sun? We will walk here / To-morrow; thou shalt look on it with me” (529, 21-23). The sun clearly represents life, and this is reinforced when “the morning came / The lady found her lover dead and cold” (529, 25-26). Sunshine could be argued to represent life’s light, and the lack of it foreshadows the youth’s doom. Moonlight is also used to color the idea of the dark and mysterious side of nature. “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” states, “Or moonlight on a midnight stream, / Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream” (530, 35-36). The stream is life’s uneven flow, and the moon is shedding light on the truth of life’s uncomfortable and often sad events. The most blatant reference is in the poem, “On Death” when he uses the description of “The pale, the cold, and the moony smile” (523, 1).
Death itself is a common thread which Shelley weaves throughout his poetry. Tombs, worms, and loss are repeated with a melancholy tenacity. Misery is the friend of death and he laments in “Death”, “THEY die – the dead return not – Misery / Sits near an open grave and calls them over” (546, 1-2). Shelley’s future sister in law, Fanny Godwin, committed suicide, but met with Shelley hours before (Maurois 208). He recorded their last meeting in “On Fanny Godwin”:
HER voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew I not that heart was broken
From which it came, and I departed
Heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery – O Misery,
This world is all too wide for thee. (546, 1-5).
The question may be posed whether or not his deep connection with the word ‘misery’ came from Fanny Godwin speaking it before her death. Loss was something Shelley experienced often throughout his short lifetime, and it is clearly a topic he struggles with. His first wife, Harriet, committed suicide by drowning herself, as did Fanny Godwin (Maurois 214). He and his second wife, Mary, lost every child they had together except one. He was obviously deeply moved by the death of his friend and contemporary, John Keats, whom he immortalized in his poem, “Adonais”. He writes of his habitual loss when he says, “This most familiar scene, my pain– / These tombs–alone remain” (“Death” 546, 7-8). Shelley was forever surrounded by ghosts of ones he held dear. Phantoms, ghosts, and shadows are common analogies Shelley uses to illustrate his bereavement. “Stanzas.-April, 1814” says, “Thou in the grave shalt rest – yet till the phantoms flee” (521, 21) they will haunt and plague with “Thy remembrance” (521, 23). Shelley’s way to deal with such tremendous loss was to release some of the emotion in verse since he was constantly followed by the burgeoning phantoms of his loved ones.
Memories and how they manifest themselves constitute a sizable portion of his poems. He relates everyday observations to a higher meaning, turning mediocre happenings into songs of terrible beauty. In “When the Lamp Is Shattered” he begins, “When the lamp is shattered / The light in the dust lies dead –” (667, 1-2). The lamp represents the light of life, the dust is the ashes of the snuffed vivacity left by death. He uses further examples:
When the cloud is scattered
The rainbow’s glory is shed.
When the lute is broken,
Sweet tones are remembered not;
When the lips have spoken,
Love accents are soon forgot. (667-668, 1-8).
He laments the way people are forgotten once they pass from life, even if inadvertently. It would be logical to also assert that Shelley fears his own mortality and presumes a lack of legacy after he dies. This poem may have dual meanings; he is expressing his grief at losing so many dear to him, as well as his sadness that one day he will share a similar fate.
Shelley liked to draw violent lines between life, love, and death. In “The Revolt of Islam” he makes this connection clear when he describes how “Death and Love are yet contending for their prey,” (39, 90). The two concepts are juxtaposed, violently shifting from mutual attraction to being repelled by one another. In “The Past” he speaks of “Love’s sweet bowers, / Heaping over their corpses cold” (553, 2-3). Love constantly seeks to overshadow the grim fate, but its success is never long lived. His writing reveals death to be the one thing in which love can not conquer, and it changes everything. Even time cannot erase or dull the loss which death viciously brings about, another subject canvassed by Shelley.
Shelley’s obsession with time and change often finds life in images of clouds. In “Mutability” he speaks of the ever changing human quality when he asserts, “We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon” (523, 1). Clouds not only travel erratically, but each has its own shape that is in a constant state of mutation. He compares how “Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart” (530, 37) in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”. Man’s personality and ideals are ever changing, no one thing is permanent. This theme of inconstancy is prevalent in his poems in numerous ways other than through cloud imagery. He uses the term mutability often, in fact it is the title of one of his best known poems. He says:
It is the same! – For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man’s yesterday may ne-er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability (523, 13-16).
The one constant in man is his inconstancy. Since his thoughts are always fluid, so must his actions be, and in that vein, so must his entire essence be forever altering. In “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” Shelley reiterates this thought when he says, “From all we hear and all we see, / Doubt, chance, and mutability” (530, 30-31). Shelley’s life was fraught with constant change, from the constant upheaval of his location to the people he held dearest to himself. He was also obsessed with the idea of people changing their low stations in life, particularly when it involved taking arms against their oppressors.
This call for change shows itself in many of Shelley’s political motivations. Mary Shelley speaks of his “eager desire to excite his countrymen to resist openly the oppressions existent during the ‘good old times’,” (qtd in Walker 128). He had an earnest hope to help people better their lives by enlightening them towards the gross injustices they were living with and then instructing them as to how they should take up arms against their oppressors. There are various poems which address this directly, as well as a pamphlet specifically calling for the Irish to dissent from England’s reign (An Address to the Irish People). In fact, Shelley was so concerned with remaining true to his political convictions and distancing himself from being involved with what he considered to be part of the main societal problem, the elite and aristocracy, he relinquished his inherited baronetcy, effectively condemning himself to lifelong poverty, in order to retain his vehement convictions.
Undoubtedly, Shelley’s reputation as a political radical was furthered by his outspoken rejection of organized religion. He was famously expelled from Oxford University after he was known to be the author of a pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. Though spiritual affinity is very common amongst Romantic poets, Shelley is unique in his open disdain for the church. Another distinct trait of Shelley’s is how passionate he is about a higher being outside of an organized church, most often portrayed as nature’s spirit. Yale Literature Professor, Christopher R. Miller notes, “’Heaven’ was one of Shelley’s favorite words, typically capitalized, and the poet used it with a frequency and range of meaning unequaled by his contemporaries or immediate predecessors”. Shelley’s poem, “Ode to Heaven” obviously explores this theme. Derision is apparent throughout the majority of stanzas, but there is curiosity that glimmers within the lines. The question is asked, “What is heaven?” (576, 39) and it is likely Shelley’s kernel of doubt echoed this sentiment. Miller states of this poem, “Odes traditionally ask how best to praise their subjects; this one is remarkable for its radical uncertainty over what is being praised (or derided)-an uncertainty that reflects Shelley’s own”. Individual spirituality is what Shelley preached in poem after poem as he struggled to define his own spirituality.
While Shelley’s open questioning of Christian doctrines fueled much of the public’s ostracization of him, it was also his open affection and admiration of women which added to his radical political views. Shelley believed in equal rights for men and women in a time when even the most liberal of men did not often speak up in favor of equality. In his works, females are portrayed as being the intelligent beings who guide males to a better understanding of the world and themselves. They are the inspiration for men, not because of their beauty, but because of their knowledge. In “To Jane: The Invitation” he calls Jane the “Radiant Sister of the Day” (669, 47). The day represents life and warmth, and he compares a woman as holding the same power of life. Women’s eyes are often spoken of, such as in “To Mary–” when he speaks of her “brown eyes bright and clear” (553, 2). Women see so much of the world, and understand so much of humankind’s suffering.
While eyes are sometimes mentioned in a positive light, they are spoken of in terms of melancholy scenes more often than not. In his poem, “To Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin”, he says, “Mine eyes were dim with tears unshed” (522, 1). Perhaps a price is attached to women’s vast knowledge and understanding. Yet the “tears [are] unshed” (522, 1) because with such empathy comes duty and a need for a tough exterior. “The Sunset” describes “Her eyes were black and lustreless and wan” (529, 37). A recurring theme of disillusioned eyes runs throughout his works, letting the reader in on one of his innermost laments; that the poet sees misery at nearly every turn. A curious observation is that most often the eyes in his poems belong to women. Perhaps, he could also be illustrating that he knows women are not blind to the sexist oppression they have historically been forced to endure and continued to face so bitterly during the early nineteenth century.
Occasionally eyes are happy symbols in Shelley’s writing. In “Eyes: A Fragment” he repeats, “How eloquent are eyes!” (842, 1) within the two stanza poem. In “To Harriet” he speaks of “the warm sunshine of thine eye” (522, 8). It is possible Shelley thought of eyes as being “’a common organ of perception’” (Barker-Benfield 148). Shelley’s pocketbook contained a sketch of a seeing eye (Barker-Benfield 148), showing he often thought of this symbol. Eyes are represented as being the gateway to knowledge, both good and bad; they see the positive side of human life through the experience of nature and art for instance, but they also must be open to the onslaught of negative human contrivances such as pain and other unhappy inflictions.
Shelley suggested a way to solve this human suffering, as well as the suffering of animals, by maintaining a simple change of diet. He advocated vegetarianism in an age when it was known to so few. In his prose essay, On the Vegetable System of Diet Shelley argues that man’s evil wants can be tamed by omitting food of flesh. He also argues the health benefits of such a diet. He states, “Specimens of longevity have been far more common among vegetable eaters in proportion to their numbers, than among those who use animal food,” (Vegetable Diet 15). He uses the example of Greek philosophers who adopted the diet to sway others to this way of thinking. Shelley ends his call for diet change by enlightening the reader to the suffering of slaughter house animals. He says, “It were much better that a sentient being should never have existed, than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery,” (Vegetable 16). He elaborates by a footnote, “The attachment of animals to their young is very strong. The monstrous sophism that beasts are pure unfeeling machines and do not reason scarcely requires a confutation,” (Vegetable 16). Shelley pleads for men and women to adopt such a simple measure to help improve themselves, and the whole of humanity in turn.
Shelley was such an abnormality among men that he was given a hero’s exit after his death, and when his body was inflamed atop the funeral pyre, his heart refused to be consumed along with the rest of his remains. The story goes that while his flesh was being burned and turned into ash, his heart was already so aflame during his lifetime that it could not be destroyed even in death. His friend thrust his hand into the fire and grabbed it, then he wrapped the seemingly eternal organ before it was given to Mary. Shelley’s heart remained with Mary Shelley for the rest of her life and it was eventually buried with her. This exemplifies one of the many things which set Shelley apart from all others. His works are filled with feeling and earnest attempts to help mankind through self reflection and change. Through verse and prose he shows the good and bad side of humanity, always with a delicate beauty. Death and grief increasingly plagued him during his brief twenty-nine years of life. Among the Romantic poets, Shelley is often thought to be the most sensitive and feeling, with his politics shadowing most of his sentiments. Lord Byron, a fellow poet and close friend to Shelley, objected to the misconstrued idea of Shelley that was held by much of their contemporary society when he said, “You were all mistaken about Shelley, who was, without exception, the least selfish man I ever knew” (Letters 350). With a deep regard and true affection for the afflicted, forgotten, and down trodden, Shelley sets himself above the rest and cements his spot as the most ardent philanthropist amongst Romantic authors.
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