Shelley: The Pursuit
By Richard Holmes
Harper Collins, 1995. 830 pp., $49.95 (hb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
In 1819, Percy Bysshe Shelley was collecting his mail from England at a post office in Rome. When his name was called out, a stranger standing near him said "What, are you that damned atheist, Shelley?" and without further ado "struck him such a blow that it felled him to the ground, and stunned him".
Shelley had earlier survived an assassination attempt in Wales in 1813, organised by the local gentry who resented his active sympathy for Luddism. Shelley was now in self-imposed exile as he faced probable jail in England for his radical poems and pamphlets.
This was no way to treat a lyrical Romantic poet. But then Shelley was no writer of beautiful but harmless literary confections for the well-bred and comfortable middle class of early 19th century England, although one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise as generations of self-
proclaimed Shelley guardians have suppressed Shelley's political and social content in their published compilations of his work.
Richard Holmes' reissued biography of Shelley redresses the balance and gives us the real Shelley, the revolutionary Romantic poet and agitator who wrote superb political poetry and agitational pamphlets as well as odes to skylarks.
Shelley was born in 1792, the third year of the French Revolution. The political upheaval throughout the globe was to profoundly influence Shelley's life. His wealthy, upper-crust family were disturbed by the young Shelley's early signs of mischievousness — he loved chemistry, exploding all manner of gunpowder devices, "practising electricity" on his sisters and wiring up a cat to a kite during a thunderstorm.
After six years at Eton being bullied for his non-conformism, including his unprecedented refusal to "fag" (act as a personal servant to a senior pupil), Shelley enrolled at Oxford in 1810, determined to storm this bastion of conservatism. He had immediate success, being expelled for atheism in 1811 after writing the first atheist pamphlet in English.
Shelley defected by choice and necessity from his class expectations — a huge property waiting to be inherited, and a future seat in parliament (an electorate in Sussex which boasted all of 15 propertied electors). He took up the cause of atheism, free love, republicanism and democracy — "everything that is mischievous to society".
In 1812, Dublin experienced Shelley's first, and only, foray into political activism — distributing "An Address to the Irish People" which argued for home rule and Catholic emancipation. As if to confirm Shelley's new status as a subversive, the Home Office started a file on him.
Shelley devoted the rest of his life to writing, with "the creative and political impulse working together" to produce his best work. "Queen Mab" set its scornful sights on religion, political tyranny, war, commerce and marriage. "The Revolt of Islam" showed a grim awareness of the horrors of counter-revolution, and reflected his new-found feminist awareness by asking, "Can man be free if woman be a slave?". "Prometheus Unbound" argued for the right of insurrection to overthrow tyranny. "The Mask of Anarchy", a protest against a massacre of unarmed demonstrators, ends with the revolutionary insight that "Ye are many, they are few".
Shelley also wrote a pamphlet, A Philosophical View of Reform, which argued that the exploitation of labour by capital was the key to understanding oppression and injustice, that both political and economic reform were needed (freedom meant little if people were starving) and that this could be won only by a mass democratic movement which set its sights on revolution.
It had taken Shelley a while to reach such clear conclusions because he had to overcome his class background, the cultural elitism of his artistic circle, his male chauvinism, the influence of the "armchair anarchist" William Godwin, and his constant struggle between political gradualism and revolution.
There was a "variety of tone" in most of his writings as he wavered between advocating limited property-based male suffrage and universal suffrage, pacifism and revolutionary force, and (like middle-class radicals everywhere) scepticism of and political trust in the masses. Unfortunately, Shelley died a few decades before the working class cohered in its modern form and demonstrated its power to be able to resolve Shelley's dilemmas.
When Shelley died from drowning in 1822, not yet 30 years old, the Tory press was smug, briefly noting that "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry has been drowned; now he knows whether there is a God or no". But Shelley had the last laugh as his political works, most of which were suppressed during his lifetime by prudent and/or cold-footed liberal publishers, did become available and were used by the Chartists, Engels (who translated "Queen Mab" into German in 1848), Karl and Eleanor Marx and others as part of the socialist project.
Holmes' biography acknowledges the centrality of Shelley's politics to his poetry, and also the more than occasional faults of Shelley's verse, such as its linguistic extravagance and lack of discipline in its complex imagery. Much of Shelley is a hard slog. Holmes himself errs on the side of wordy profligacy, tracing in rather more minute detail than necessary the lives of Shelley and his second wife (and author of Frankenstein) Mary Shelley, the shooting competitions with Byron at Pisa, and other Shelley companions such as the repentant radical and poet laureate, Southey, and the unpolitical but fellow-travelling Keats.
Shelley lived through dark days of repression, and all his images of revolution — all those volcanoes and mythical heroes on mounted steeds — remained words on paper. His genius, however, was to discern the revolutionary dynamic in society and to fix it in verse. All his short life, Shelley refused to believe in god, kings, war, the rich, forced sex, unhappy marriages, censorship and the worst of all, "the mischiefs flowing from oppression, namely that one man is forced to labour for another". He believed in humanity, and poetry, and did the best he could for both.