Suzy Feay

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Suzi Feay

‘A Sum­mer storm’: The Let­ters of Keats and Shelley

Not long ago I was asked to be a guest on a pod­cast de­voted to out-of-the­way books and for­got­ten au­thors. It turned out that my first, per­haps ob­vi­ous choices had al­ready been taken, but in a flash of in­spi­ra­tion I quickly hit upon the per­fect sub­ject: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Col­lected Let­ters, mys­te­ri­ously less cel­e­brated than Keats’s, and to my mind much more fas­ci­nat­ing.

A few weeks later the idea was re­gret­fully re­jected. I was told that lis­ten­ers to the pod­cast usu­ally ex­pect to buy copies of the books dis­cussed; im­prac­ti­cal when the only edi­tion, the two-vol­ume Let­ters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed Roger Ing­pen, pub­lished by Bell and Sons in 1915, was now priced in ex­cess of £100. I gloat­ingly thought back to my own set, which cost me £10 about twenty years ago, be­fore feel­ing de­spon­dent that Keats had trumped Shelley once more.

The small, neatly-bound vol­ume con­tain­ing a se­lec­tion of the Shelley let­ters that I found in the stacks of the Brother­ton Li­brary in Leeds had sparked an ob­ses­sion. Real life was drab; I reg­u­larly went to the de­serted cor­ner of the base­ment and dis­ap­peared into Shelley’s world. I left Leeds, left the book be­hind, but ex­quis­ite para­graphs lin­gered, only half re­mem­bered: Ital­ian scenes, lakes and moun­tains; ru­ins, bats and owls; stars and storms, stat­ues and pic­tures, evo­ca­tions of po­etry, life and love.

I’m not sure whether an­ti­quar­ian book­selling had al­ready moved largely on to the net back then, but part of the fun of the quest was trekking to Hay-on-Wye once a year, and scour­ing sec­ond-hand book­shops in any small town I found my­self in. In the mean­time I had bor­rowed both vol­umes via an in­ter-li­brary loan, but they were too bulky to do more than dip into in a fort­night. I badly needed to pos­sess them.

I dashed in and out of musty shops, look­ing for the shelf where, be­tween Shaw and Sitwell, there would rarely be any­thing of in­ter­est. One day I found Vol­ume 1, trea­sur­able, ir­re­sistible, but not cov­er­ing the Ital­ian years. Much later I was do­ing the rounds in Hay once more, when I saw a fa­mil­iar-look­ing red spine with gold let­ter­ing. ‘Of course, it’ll be an­other Vol­ume 1,’ I thought glumly. It wasn’t. I had com­pleted my quest.

The mys­tery of why Keats’s let­ters have never been out of print while Shelley’s have never been reprinted still baf­fles. I pleaded with Shelley bi­og­ra­pher Richard Holmes to at least edit a Se­lected, but he de­murred, too busy on other projects. (He has edited a small se­lec­tion of prose en­ti­tled Shelley on Love, con­tain­ing the trans­la­tion of Plato’s Sym­po­sium.) And be­sides, Ju­lian Sands, whom he was coach­ing prior to play­ing the role in Ken Rus­sell’s splen­did film Gothic, had never re­turned Holmes’s own copy of the let­ters.

Think of Keats’s let­ters and you think per­haps of that con­fus­ingly ex­pressed qual­ity of ‘neg­a­tive ca­pa­bil­ity’. You think of ‘the vale of soul­mak­ing’; ‘if po­etry comes not as nat­u­rally as the leaves to a tree, it had bet­ter not come at all’; ‘Oh for a life of sen­sa­tions rather than of thoughts!’; ‘We hate po­etry that has a pal­pa­ble de­sign on us.’ In con­trast Shelley has sur­pris­ingly lit­tle to say about his own craft or po­etry in gen­eral. Shelley did have po­etic the­o­ries, he just didn’t go on about them to his friends. What they trea­sured was his verve, his un­con­quer­able ad­ven­tur­ous spirit.

Keats’s own phrase best de­scribes the con­trast be­tween them: ‘Fine writ­ing is next to fine do­ing the top thing in the world.’ While Keats was stuck in Hamp­stead, Shelley was run­ning away with young women; purs­ing pas­sion­ate re­la­tion­ships with cor­re­spon­dents of both sexes; trav­el­ling to Dublin to dis­sem­i­nate rad­i­cal pam­phlets; be­ing shot at in Wales (al­legedly); telling ghost sto­ries with By­ron and Mary in Geneva; cross­ing the Vene­tian la­goon in a gon­dola at night dur­ing a storm; climb­ing Mount Ve­su­vius on a mule; over­see­ing the births of six chil­dren; tak­ing on the Bri­tish

estab­lish­ment; ag­i­tat­ing for po­lit­i­cal re­form. Trag­i­cally, Keats’s own Ital­ian voy­age was un­der­taken when he was too ill to write; we owe to his amanu­en­sis Joseph Sev­ern the record of the his last months in Pi­azza di Spagna.

Read­ing a writer’s di­ary, how­ever much one might sus­pect it has been writ­ten for the pub­lic view, al­ways feels a lit­tle creepy and in­va­sive. With let­ters as lively as Shelley’s, you can in­dulge the sen­sa­tion that cer­tain of them are ad­dressed to you, wing­ing their way 200 years too late. (‘The post here is what the waves in hell were to Tan­talus’ he wrote from Wales.) Vol­ume 1 be­gins with a sparky let­ter from the Sus­sex 10-year-old to an aunt. The salu­ta­tion strikes the au­then­tic note of the rebel: ‘I am not / your obe­di­ent ser­vant, /P B Shelley’.

At Univer­sity Col­lege Ox­ford he meets fel­low stu­dent Thomas Jef­fer­son Hogg; a rapid mu­tual en­chant­ment en­sues, en­acted in rap­tur­ous or re­proach­ful let­ters. Cor­re­spon­dence with his fa­ther is fa­ther is cold and dis­tant, par­tic­u­larly after the friends’ ex­pul­sion for athe­ism in Fe­bru­ary 1811. An older woman and fel­low rad­i­cal spirit, El­iz­a­beth Hitch­ener, is first ad­dressed as ‘My Dear Madam’, then ‘My Dear­est Friend’ and even ‘My Beloved Friend’. In­vited to live with him and his first wife Har­riet, she soon earned the ep­i­thet the ‘Brown De­mon’ and dis­ap­pears from his story; an in­stance of his ruth­less­ness when imag­i­na­tion yielded to cold re­al­ity. He turns veg­e­tar­ian: ‘I con­tinue veg­etable… My health is much im­proved by it’ (De­cem­ber 1812). He makes his first ap­proach to Leigh Hunt, soon to be­come an en­thu­si­as­tic booster (it’s al­ways good for a poet to have at least one jour­nal­ist on his side). He writes, fate­fully, a fan let­ter to the po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher Wil­liam God­win, whose daugh­ter Mary is to prove wife Har­riet’s un­do­ing. Vol­ume 1 con­cludes with the low-key pub­li­ca­tion of his col­lec­tion ‘Alas­tor’.

With Vol­ume 2, the Ro­man­tic poet comes into his full power. The cel­e­brated sum­mer at Villa Dio­dati in 1816 was much mythol­o­gised, not least by Mary. Shelley’s ac­count is calmer, but he re­calls spooky ses­sions with Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis (‘We talk of Ghosts’) and an omi­nous near-drown­ing while sail­ing on Lake Geneva with By­ron in a storm:

My com­pan­ion, an ex­cel­lent swim­mer, took his coat off, I did the same, and we sat with our arms crossed, every in­stant ex­pect­ing to be swamped… I felt in this near prospect of death a mix­ture of sen­sa­tions, among which ter­ror en­tered, though but sub­or­di­nately.

Some trips fed di­rectly into lit­er­ary pro­duc­tions, his and oth­ers; By­ron’s The Pris­oner of Chillon was in­spired by a visit to a grim chateau on the lake; and a trip to the Mer de Glace is fea­tured in Mary’s novel Franken­stein. Writ­ing to Thomas Love Pea­cock, we can over­hear Shelley draft­ing a fa­mous poem: ‘One would think that Mont Blanc, like the god of the Sto­ics, was a vast an­i­mal, and that his frozen blood for­ever cir­cu­lated through his stony veins.’

In March 1818, Shelley left Lon­don for good. He and Mary headed for Mi­lan, where the gothic Duomo was con­jured for Pea­cock, re­cip­i­ent of the very finest let­ters. ‘There is one soli­tary spot among these aisles, be­hind the al­tar, where the light of day is dim and yel­low, un­der the sto­ried win­dow, which I have cho­sen to visit, and read Dante there.’ In Bagna di Lucca he is em­ployed, ‘hav­ing lit­tle bet­ter to do, in trans­lat­ing into my faint and in­ef­fi­cient pe­ri­ods the di­vine elo­quence of Plato’s Sym­po­sium’ for Mary’s ben­e­fit. There’s a spot of na­tur­ism: ‘My cus­tom is to un­dress, and sit on the rocks, read­ing Herodotus, un­til the perspiration has sub­sided, and then to leap from the edge of the rock into this foun­tain – a prac­tice in the hot weather ex­ces­sively re­fresh­ing.’

In Este he records that ‘At the end of our gar­den is an ex­ten­sive Gothic cas­tle, now the habi­ta­tion of owls and bats… we see the sun and moon rise and set, and the evening star, and all the golden mag­nif­i­cence of au­tum­nal clouds.’ In Venice he re-en­coun­ters By­ron and ‘really hardly knew him again; he is changed into the liveli­est and hap­pi­est-look­ing man I ever met’. In Florence, win­ter 1819, the germ of ‘Ode to the West Wind’ sprouts: ‘I like the Cascine [wood] very much, where I of­ten walk alone, watch­ing the leaves, and the ris­ing and fall­ing of the Arno.’

He flits to Bologna, Livorno and Pisa. In Rome he finds a se­cluded spot to com­pose ‘Prometheus Un­bound’ in the baths of Cara­calla:

‘There are… a number of tow­ers and labyrinthine re­cesses, hid­den and wo­ven over by the wild growths of weeds and ivy. Never was any des­o­la­tion more sub­lime and lovely.’ Un­moved by Michelan­gelo, he prefers Raphael, and of the Sis­tine Chapel writes: ‘it is a dull and wicked em­blem of a dull and wicked thing. Je­sus Christ is like an an­gry pot-boy, and God like an old ale­house-keeper look­ing out of win­dow.’

In Ravenna there’s an un­for­get­table glimpse of Lord By­ron’s un­ruly house­hold, a ‘Circean palace’: ‘I have just met on the grand stair­case five pea­cocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyp­tian crane. I won­der who all these crea­tures were be­fore they were changed into these shapes.’ In Pisa, stay­ing up late with By­ron and com­pany, ‘my nerves are gen­er­ally shaken to pieces by sit­ting con­tem­plat­ing the rest mak­ing them­selves into vats of claret, etc, un­til three o’clock in the morn­ing.’ (Shelley hardly drank.) The friend­ship was sour­ing: ‘Lord By­ron has made me bit­terly feel the in­fe­ri­or­ity which the world has pre­sumed to place be­tween us and which sub­sists nowhere in re­al­ity but in our own tal­ents, which are not our own but Na­ture’s - or in our rank, which is not our own but For­tune’s.’

Were the let­ters more widely known, they would re­fute com­mon mis­con­cep­tions about Shelley: firstly, that was hu­mour­lessly self­in­volved; they are far too en­ter­tain­ing and out­ward-look­ing for that. Next that he was a mopey weak­ling, an eter­nal ado­les­cent, crushed by the world. There are stern let­ters here, es­pe­cially to grasp­ing fa­therin-law God­win, and busi­nesslike ones, and fierce de­nun­ci­a­tions of crit­ics and politi­cians. Fi­nally, that he was men­tally un­bal­anced. The let­ters pulse with san­ity, shrewd­ness and in­tel­lec­tual power.

He died so young, just short of 30, yet there were gloomy por­tents of his fate. The Shelley estab­lish­ment moved for the last time, to Casa Magni on the coast. ‘I have bought a boat.’ With less than a month of life left, he writes to John Gis­borne: ‘I think one is al­ways in love with some­thing or other; the er­ror, and I con­fess it is not easy for spir­its cased in flesh and blood to avoid it, con­sists in seek­ing in a mor­tal im­age the like­ness of what is per­haps eter­nal.’ From the pi­rat­i­cal Trelawny he

re­quests a bot­tle of prus­sic acid: ‘I need not tell you I have no in­ten­tion of sui­cide at present, but I con­fess it would be a com­fort to me to hold in my pos­ses­sion that golden key to the cham­ber of per­pet­ual rest.’

To Jane Wil­liams, wife of his friend Ed­ward, who was to drown with him aboard the ‘Ariel’, he wrote haunt­ingly: ‘How are you to­day, and how is Wil­liams? Tell him I dreamed of noth­ing but sail­ing, and fish­ing up coral.’ ‘Of his bones are coral made,’ sang Ariel in The Tem­pest, re­call­ing the lines on Shelley’s grave: ‘Noth­ing of him that doth fade/ But doth suf­fer a sea-change / Into some­thing rich and strange.’

The last let­ter was dis­patched to Mary from Pisa, where he spent his fi­nal day in the Campo Santo, look­ing at the grue­some fres­coes of devils and damna­tion with Leigh Hunt. ‘You have no idea how I am hur­ried and oc­cu­pied; I have not a mo­ment’s leisure… Ever, dear­est Mary, yours af­fec­tion­ately, S’. I find the scrib­bled post­script al­most un­bear­ably poignant. ‘I have found the trans­la­tion of the Sym­po­sium.’ All that ge­nius, all those schemes and fu­ture po­ems, blot­ted out in a sum­mer storm.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.