Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, Percy Shelley

Today is Percy Shelley's birthday. Although I never liked much of his poetry, I did use his play, "The Cenci," extensively in my dissertation, so I feel a bit of fondness for him. His personal life, however, gives me pause.

He left his pregnant wife and toddler to run away with Mary Godwin (who would go on to write Frankenstein)--underage Mary Godwin. The two left a trail of wrecked lives behind them: the pregnant wife committed suicide; Mary Godwin's half sister, Fanny Imlay, felt so abandoned that she committed suicide; Claire Clairmont (Mary Godwin's stepsister) ran away with Mary and Percy and began an ill-considered affair with Byron. Three of Mary's children died during the first years of their travels (staying ahead of bill collectors). Reread Frankenstein with those biographical facts in mind.

And yet, I tend to let Percy Shelley off the hook a bit--I used his work in my dissertation, after all. I'm not willing to give everyone such a free pass.

For example, it's hard for me to like Wordsworth, now that I know the biography of Dorothy Wordsworth. I will always wonder if Coleridge's story might have had a happier ending, had William Wordsworth been a better friend. With those facts in mind, I've lost my adolescent love of Wordsworth's poetry.

I never loved Percy Shelley's poems, so perhaps there was less estimation to lose. And yes, I have a Ph.D. in British Literature, and yes, I understand that it may be a mark of lack of sophistication to let my judgment of authors' personal lives to color my estimation of their work. I'm also a feminist, so it's hard for me to discard relevant facts, particularly when I think about how much creative work was done by men because the women in their lives took care of the details of daily life: the cooking, cleaning, childcare. And many women did the hard work of the business side of writing for male writers whom they loved: transcribing, keeping a journal for male writers to cannibalize, working for publication, publicizing.

Imagine what kind of writer you might be if you had a Dorothy Wordsworth in your life. Read her journals from the Grasmere period and dream a little dream.

We likely wouldn't remember Percy Shelley today, if Mary hadn't devoted much of her life to securing his reputation. Frankly, I think she's the more interesting writer, and I find it intriguing that for over 100 years, she was remembered primarily as Percy's wife. Even when I was in undergraduate school in the mid-80's, textbooks still rarely recognized the genius of Frankenstein. Now I could make a cogent argument that that book is one of the most important literary works to come out of the Romantic movement.

So, happy birthday, Percy Shelley. You were smart enough to choose a good wife, even if she was underage and you were already married to someone else. Perhaps, in another hundred years, we'll look at your biography differently. After all, my favorite P.B. Shelley poem, "Mutability," promises that the only thing we can count on is change: "Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow; / Nought may endure but Mutability."


Shefali Shah Choksi said...

i remember getting drunk on the sheer lyricism of Shelley's poetry. i didn't (i am afraid i still don't) care about how many people were sacrificed to feed my high. i didn't understand a lot of it, but that didn't matter since it is just so BEAUTIFUL!
That's what i shall celebrate today.
i am shallow, so knowing how badly these poets abused everyone around them doesn't affect my response to their words.
But it does seem important to pay homage to all the influences that fed the fount that resulted in such wonder, words that weave their magic centuries after they are born, on eyes and minds whose only pre-requisite is being human!

January said...

Yes, maybe we'll look at Shelley differently in another hundred years. It is interesting what fuels an artist's creativity.

Now I must read a Shelley poem today.

Thanks for your post.

Dale said...

The thing about Shelley -- everything you say is true, but the thing about Shelley is that he did everything he did in the open. God knows he left a trail of woe, but he also left a surprising number of people who loved him devotedly, including Byron, who did not love easily.

Shelley gets the bum rap because he didn't do what all his friends with clean reputations did: he didn't frequent prostitutes and have discreet affairs. He did what he did openly and attempted to take responsibility for it, in his own weird way. It probably would have been better for some of the women in his life if he hadn't. But his crime is to have done openly with upper class women what men generally did secretly with lower class women. The wretched pregnant whores in rags don't get into the biographies of more respectable literary men. But they should be there. Shelley's women have voices because he wanted them to have voices. And that's extraordinary.

Kristin said...

You make excellent points, Dale. I've always liked Shelley because he did try to live by his moral code and was very open about it, no matter the consequence.