The exhibition “Shelley’s Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet,” now at the New York Public Library, is the sort of exhibit that doesn’t necessarily tell you anything you didn’t already know about this poet’s short and messy life. What it does do, by virtue of placing the manuscripts and artifacts into a relatively confined space (the smallish gallery to the left of the main exhibition room on the ground floor of the Library), is give us the facts in a more concentrated and vivid way than we might otherwise receive them. The exhibit demonstrates, with dramatic succinctness, that Percy Bysshe Shelley and some of those he hung out with were pretty shitty people. I’m not talking about the sort of shittiness that we associate with, say, Ezra Pound or Martin Heidegger, whose politics were repugnant. No one likes a fascist, at least in the abstract. But Shelley had politics that were progressive and humanitarian, which may make things worse.
My response is probably not what the curators from Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries and the New York Public Library’s Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection had in mind. But who knows if my response is typical. Perhaps everyone else will think Shelley and his friends were really cool.
On display is the letter written by Harriet Westbrook Shelley, the poet’s first wife, before she killed herself. Shelley had eloped with Harriet when she was 16, but he later abandoned her to elope with Mary Godwin, daughter of his mentor William Godwin, when Mary was 16. A few paces away, we learn from the wall copy that when Shelley died at age 29, in a sailing accident with his friend Edward Williams (owner of the boat The Don Juan), he was already eying Williams’ wife Jane. This may be why Mary was “cold” to him toward the end — the term she uses for her behavior in her private diary, also on display.
If these women were children when he met them, he proceeded to have more children with them. Two with Harriet before she drowned herself in a lake in London’s Hyde Park; the copy for the exhibit says she was pregnant at the time by another man, but some sources say Shelley could well have been the father, since he was still in touch with Harriet. He had already had three children with Mary.
When Shelley eloped with Mary, they took along Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont, who may or may not have had an affair with Shelley, too. They left behind Mary’s other half-sister, Fanny Imlay (Mary and Fanny’s mother, the feminist author and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, had had Fanny out of wedlock with the American diplomat Gilbert Imlay). A letter in the exhibit makes clear that Fanny felt ill-used by Shelley and her half-sister — she refers to their making denigrating, satirical remarks about her — though she also professes her continued devotion to them. Something of the same devotion is expressed in Harriet’s letter to Shelley as well. He seems to have had an uncanny ability to get people to fawn over him, even while treating them badly. This may have come from having a doting older sister; from my experience, doting older sisters make men feel very entitled.
It seems that Shelley had flirted seriously with Fanny before hitting on Mary, then threw her over when he realized that Mary was smarter and more literary. (Harriet, it seems, had been more political.) For whatever reason, Fanny Imlay proceeded to kill herself by an overdose of laudanum.
It didn’t help that Fanny had been stuck ministering to William Godwin, the man who married her mother after her father abandoned them. Godwin seems to have vied with Shelley in being oblivious to other people’s feelings. He didn’t notice that his second wife (Claire’s mother) was treating Fanny shabbily or that Fanny was running herself ragged trying to raise money so he could continue to be a genius. To get a sense of Godwin’s style, the exhibit includes a copy of his diary, a neat and concise collection of jottings, in which he notes in code his sexual encounters with Mary Wollstonecraft before their marriage. After Wollstonecraft’s death, he published a biography of her in which he enumerated her sexual indiscretions prior to their marriage. He presumably meant to demonstrate what a free spirit she was and didn’t realize that this might sully her reputation and ensure that she would not be read for generations. Poor Mary Wollstonecraft. Her alleged last words were that Godwin was “the kindest, best man in the world” — which, given her experience with “men in the world,” was probably true. Her two previous lovers, Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay, both deserted her — the latter, leaving her with a young child, inspired several suicide attempts. By comparison, Godwin must have looked like a prince.
The exhibit includes an original manuscript of Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley when she, Shelley, Byron, and half-sister Claire were cooped up during a rainy spell at Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. It’s ironic when you think about it that Frankenstein, produced as a diversion on a rainy day — fun that the male geniuses quickly opted out of — is now better known than anything they wrote. It’s true that Byron and Shelley are placed higher in the literary pantheon than Mary Shelley, but it is Mary’s novel that was made into many high- and low-grossing movies, including one by Mel Brooks and one starring Robert De Niro.
Shelley’s back-story is also succinctly presented here. Born to privilege (on display is his coral-and-gold baby rattle) and flattered for his genius from childhood (also here is his poem, “A Cat in Distress,” written at age 11 and illustrated by that doting older sister), he was sent to Eton and, from there, to Oxford, from which he was expelled after two terms for publishing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. His long poem “Queen Mab,” written as he traveled around Europe with his first, political-minded teenaged wife Harriet, expressed the radical views that he had derived in part from reading the work of the father of his next, poetical-minded teenaged wife Mary.
Shelley managed to alienate his wealthy family as a result of his politics, depriving himself of a considerable income, but he had plenty of well-connected friends — or, at least, one with a villa and one with a boat — not to mention people who responded to his active libido (he is rumored to have been bisexual), his delicately brooding good looks, and his unwavering conviction of his own genius.
In short, the exhibit does a nice job reaffirming that geniuses are not necessarily nice people, indeed, that a certain amount of selfishness might be required to make it in poetry and philosophy.
Still, in the case of Shelley, I have to wonder if his life didn’t ultimately affect the quality of his work. This is not an idea that would have occurred to me when I first read this poet. In college and even in graduate school, one tended to take the word of one’s professors on faith and to find value where they told us it existed. But returning to Shelley now, I wonder if he’s as good as he’s cracked up to be. His shorter poems such as “Ode to the West Wind” and “Ozymandius” definitely carry some punch (the latter, an apt, if overblown, statement about how all greatness eventually falls to dust). But “Alastor,” “Prometheus Unbound,” and the unfinished “Triumph of Life” — I’m not so sure. I know I will be pilloried by Shelley enthusiasts for this — and two people I greatly respect can be counted among these. One even tried to convince me that Prometheus Unbound was a great poem by reading the end of its last act aloud:
Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom, and Endurance,
These are the seals of that most firm assurance
— Given my recent immersion in the Shelley soap opera, these elevated abstract nouns sound something of a false note —
Which bars the pit over Destruction’s strength;
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.
Is it just me who hears Rudyard Kipling’s “If” — which critical opinion dubs middle-brow doggerel — in the above?
As I was completing this essay, another of my colleagues pointed me toward a poem by Galway Kinnell that makes a similar argument to mine succinctly in verse. Here is the first stanza of Kinnell’s poem,“Shelley”:
When I was twenty the one true
free spirit I had heard of was Shelley,
Shelley, who wrote tracts advocating
atheism, free love, the emancipation
of women, the abolition of wealth and class,
and poems on the bliss of romantic love,
Shelley, who, I learned later, perhaps
almost too late, remarried Harriet,
then pregnant with their second child,
and a few months later ran off with Mary,
already pregnant herself, bringing
with them Mary’s stepsister Claire,
who very likely also became his lover…
Kinnell goes on to rehearse some of the other material that I have noted here, and ends, as I do, feeling some disdain for his youthful enthusiasm:
and in those days, before I knew
any of this, I thought I followed Shelley,
who thought he was following radiant desire.
In closing, I will acknowledge one exception to my now-tepid response to Shelley’s verse. I really like the final stanza of his 1821 poem, “Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats”:
The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.
This finale gets to me whenever I read it. But I can’t help but wonder if it would give me the same frisson if it did not so uncannily predict the manner of its author’s eventual death. Then again, this seems only right: that the best work in this man’s ignoble life should be his prescient imagining of leaving it. • 24 April 2012