‘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.