Percy Bysshe Shelley

My Crush on Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819, by Amelia Curran

I wrote yesterday about Byron, and despite completely understanding Byron’s appeal, it is Shelley I have the crush on.

I probably first encountered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry in twelfth grade. I can’t think of any reason I would have encountered him before that time. I did a group project on his poem “Ozymandias” with two classmates. We videotaped ourselves as the Shelleys and his “inspiration,” a basketball player who was past his prime and whose talent would quickly vanish, which I have to say was probably not a bad modernization of the text’s theme. Shopping in the bookstore with my parents, I found a Norton anthology of Shelley’s poetry and prose and had to have it. My dad bought it for me, and he must have been scratching his head over the purchase something fierce because what normal twelfth grader wants a Norton anthology of a British Romantic poet’s work? Even I would wonder what was up with such a kid if I met one today, but I have a sneaking suspicion I was on the extremely rare side in that particular area.

So I read some of the other poems in the Norton, and I was particularly entranced by Epipsychidion, a word Shelley made up which means “on the subject of the little soul.” This poem is about S-E-X. It is transcendent, a connection of souls. It’s written for a woman named Teresa Viviani with whom Shelley was quite enamored, but who was inaccessibly confined in a convent by her father. Just imagine! It reminds me of Romeo’s declaration that Rosaline’s decision to “remain chaste” in fact “makes huge waste.” In the poem, Shelley calls Viviani “Emilia,” the name of Hippolyta’s sister as described in The Teseida by Boccaccio. Later, Geoffrey Chaucer would rework the story in “The Knight’s Tale,” and Shakespeare and John Fletcher as Two Noble Kinsmen. Emilia, or Emily, desires to remain chaste also, but she has the misfortune to be spied by Palamone and Arcita, who fall in love with her on sight (because that’s what you do). I am much more familiar with Chaucer’s version of the story, so I’ll discuss it for a moment (still with me? bored out of your skull yet?).

In Chaucer’s story, Palamon and Arcite (same dudes, different spelling) are cousins who are like brothers. They are among the Thebans who fought against Theseus’s forces. They are captured and imprisoned in Athens, and it is from their prison window that first Palamon, then Arcite, spy Emily. They fall in love with her at first sight, but they can’t have her because they’re in prison. Eventually Arcite is released from prison, but is exiled from Athens, while Palamon remains behind bars. This scenario prompts the Knight to ask the company who has it worse: Palamon, who is imprisoned, but who can still look on Emily’s beauty from his prison window, or Arcite, who is free, but cannot see Emily. I usually ask students how they would answer the Knight’s question. How would you?

I won’t go too far into the rest of the story, but suffice it to say the men have really only fallen in love with Emily from afar. They don’t really know her, and in fact, no one really cares what she wants in all of this, which is to be a nun. Women didn’t get to choose so much in Emily’s day, however, so she eventually weds one of the cousins, and I won’t tell you which because I hope you’ll read the story. What Emily represents is the Knight’s ideal—an example of the lady on the pedestal. Of course, the Miller tells his story next, concerning men and women who are a little nearer to the earth.

At any rate, Shelley choosing that particular nickname for his beloved is fraught with all sorts of meaning. She is the unattainable Emilia, only she is imprisoned rather than her lover (presumably Shelley). Idealized, not real. Not really Teresa Viviani, but his hope for perfection.  He compares his wife, Mary Shelley, to the moon—cold, chaste. Teresa is the sun (can’t help but think of Romeo and Juliet once again).

I don’t know why, but I developed a sort of crush on Shelley that has lasted since twelfth grade, over 20 years now. I don’t think Shelley was particularly nice, at least not to his wives, and I’m not sure what it is about him. He is on the page, and his opinions and beliefs shine forth in clear language, but even after all this time, I don’t feel I really know him. He is still a mystery. I am looking forward to seeing how Jude Morgan gives him flesh and life. I have no trouble imagining Byron or Keats as real people, but Shelley has remained elusive. He is, in that way, like Emilia himself. All the descriptions I’ve read of him tend toward the idealized. I hope Morgan is able to make him walk on the ground.

See Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family.

Lord Byron

Byron Was a Bad, Bad Boy

Lord Byron
Portrait by Richard Westall

Byron seems to be cropping up on my radar a lot lately. Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time recently recorded a discussion of his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. I subscribe to the podcast in iTunes and listened to it during my work commute last week. My favorite part:

Melvyn Bragg: Then he left [England] in 1816, as it happens never to return, but he left notorious—he was hissed in theatres, he was hissed in the House of Lords. He was more than a scandal; he was an outrage. They wanted him out—out of the country, off the island. What had happened?

Emily Bernhard Jackson: Well, he had had an affair with his half-sister, um, of some duration, uh—

Melvyn Bragg: And that got out.

Emily Bernhard Jackson: That got out. Although, interestingly, what seems to have caused more problems were the rumours that he had practised homosexuality in the East, that he had attempted to perform sodomy with his wife and with Lady Caroline Lamb, both. Um, these were all rumours. There was a—when the Byrons separated, Lady Byron mounted a kind of campaign to make sure that she would come out well, a very modern campaign, and part of that was spreading these rumours. Um—

Melvyn Bragg: What credence do you give them?

Emily Bernhard Jackson: I would say he certainly had an affair with his sister. I would stay that’s beyond question, although he didn’t announce it to the world. I give full credence to all of them.

I think it says something kind of weird about me that I laughed when Professor Jackson said that last sentence, mainly because she set it up to sound like a smear campaign headed by Lady Byron, Annabella Milbanke, but a true one.

Annabella Byron, 1812
Annabella Byron, 1812 via Wikipedia

Caroline Lamb famously described Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” and Melvyn Bragg and his guests hypothesized that Byron’s bad-boy reputation helped move copies of his books off the shelves. The Corsair sold 10,000 copies on its first day, apparently.

Byron will also be a character in the book I’m currently enjoying immensely: Passion by Jude Morgan—the story of the Romantic poets Byron, Shelley, and Keats as told through the voices of the women who loved them.

I have to admit that when I teach Byron, I can be somewhat irreverent, and it is my hope that Byron, wherever he is (I’m sure many folks would say hell), enjoys it a little. I think he liked being famous. One of my favorite ways to describe Byron’s death is that he was bored, so he decided to sail for Messolonghi and fight for Greek independence because that’s what you do.

He sounds like he would have been one of those guys who was fascinating to have as an acquaintance, but maddening to have as a close friend or lover. Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist, expert on bipolar disorder, and author of Touched with Fire and The Unquiet Mind, speculates that Byron was bipolar, which would explain a lot about some of the choices he made in life. It also explains much of his behavior—by turns magnetic and charismatic, then frightening and cruel. Certainly he describes suffering from melancholy.

“My Soul is Dark”

My soul is dark—Oh! quickly string
The harp I yet can brook to hear;
And let thy gentle fingers fling
Its melting murmurs o’er mine ear.
If in this heart a hope be dear,
That sound should charm it forth again:
If in these eyes there lurk a tear,
‘Twill flow, and cease to burn my brain.

But bid the strain be wild and deep,
Nor let thy notes of joy be first:
I tell thee, minstrel, I must weep,
Or else this heavy heart will burst;
For it hath been by sorrow nursed,
And ached in sleepless silence long;
And now ’tis doom’d to know the worst,
And break at once—or yield to song.

When I read this poem, which seems to discuss Byron’s emotions on hearing music, I can’t help but notice the title seems to infer it’s really about his own turbulent feelings—the frustration he felt over being emotionally damaged or deranged in some way. His poetry must have been one of the few outlets he had for making himself feel better—his heart would “break at once—or yield to song.” And yet, he’s not without a sense of dark humor about himself. Thomas Medwin reports in The Angler in Wales, Or Days and Nights of Sportsmen, Vol. 2 that in discussion of an upcoming attack on the Castle of Lepanto in which he would act as commander-in-chief,

“I do not know how it will end,” said his Lordship, gaily, “but one thing is certain, there is no fear of my running,” at the same time glancing at his lame foot. (214)

I leave you with some audio of one of Byron’s most famous poems, “She Walks in Beauty,” set to music by Isaac Nathan. Nathan’s melodies for Byron’s poems (Hebrew Melodies) have largely been forgotten, but Byron’s poetry remains. This audio is from Romantic Era Songs.

She Walks in Beauty