Percy Bysshe Shelley

In the course of studying William Butler Yeats I have become more interested in Percy Bysshe Shelley. There is nothing to prevent my attention wandering. I do not specialize in Irish literature. I have not established myself as an expert on Yeats. Although I sometimes regret not having any credentials in the literary world, there is an advantage in not being constrained by any professional interests. I don’t have to take my professional reputation into consideration. But a Yeats scholar could justify studying Shelley because Yeats was heavily influenced by Shelley. Currently I am reading the book Yeats And Shelley by George Bornstein.

Yeats And Shelley
Yeats And Shelley

However, I became more intrigued by Shelley after reading one of his major poems, Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. Yeats was apparently impressed by this poem as well. Consider this sentence I found on page 29 of the book:

In the 1890s Yeats identified himself with Shelley as a visionary poet willing to sacrifice wide popularity in order to create a “pure” poetry which would apprehend Intellectual Beauty and reveal it to a select group of startled readers.

The poem Hymn to Intellectual Beauty is difficult to understand. For one thing, Shelley is not suggesting that intellectual pursuits or notions have the greatest beauty. I have found this explanation of what Shelley meant:

“Intellectual Beauty”, though Platonic in concept, is an expression not used by Plato but widely current in contemporary writing, especially that of Radical intellectuals associated with Godwin, where it meant non-sensuous beauty, “the beauty of the mind and its creations”. Shelley’s title seems closer in meaning to the “universal beauty” which he intended by the phrase two years later when translating a passage of Plato’s Symposium. Shelley’s Intellectual Beauty in his “Hymn” (Song) is not exclusively mental; it is contained or reflected in forms as well as in thoughts.

A simpler explanation is that Shelley was thinking of Ideal Beauty but according to the Neoplatonists the ideal world is a higher reality and our mundane world is but a poor shadow of loftier forms. The most startling line in the poem is line 29:

Frail spells whose utter’d charm might not avail to sever,

I have found this explanation for this line:

In this stanza of ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’, Shelley proceeds to assert that no voice from the greater and graceful world has ever given such answers to questions asked by the poets as supplied by Intellectual Beauty. Even the Trinity of God, and Ghost and Heaven remain records of the useless attempts to explain things and not succeeding. Their responses, which are recorded in the Bible, whose magic remains weak, the power of which does not succeed in separating what is felt and what is seen.

This is an incredibly bold statement by Shelley because he is suggesting that all the mystics of religion have failed to relate the majesty of Ideal Beauty. This is actually true since mystics often claim that their visions are ineffable and beyond what can be conveyed in words. Here Shelley reveals himself to be a true visionary.

Apparently you have to be some sort of genius to understand the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley as Mary Shelley claims:

It requires a mind as subtle and penetrating as his own to understand the mystic meanings scattered throughout the poem. They elude the ordinary reader by their abstraction and delicacy of distinction, but they are far from vague.

Fortunately I am such a genius! But seriously, Mary Shelley was suggesting that you need be a mystic yourself to appreciate Shelley’s poetry. Yeats is often accused of snobbery but the truth of the matter is that his genius put him in the illustrious company of the visionary poets. An interesting insight into how superior apprehension can isolate a poet can be found on page 32 of Yeats and Shelley:

Although the desire for subjective beauty proved Tennyson’s superiority to Montgomery, it also restricted his popularity and isolated him from his society. The subjective poet’s sensibility offered him a realm that “most men were not permitted to experience,” and society consequently derided him as a hapless dreamer.

Yeats was also to a certain extent isolated by his genius but he attempted to work against this by being politically engaged and devoting a lot of attention to an art form that is more directed towards the general public, i.e. the theater. Let’s not forget that William Butler Yeats was a dramatist as well as a visionary poet! His attempts to create a verse drama for a more sophisticated audience were not very successful but this should not be considered a personal failure. He was simply trying to elevate theater far beyond where it can go. Plays cannot exceed the comprehension of the general public. In other words, the play must not fly over the heads of the audience. Yeats offers a cautionary tale for any visionary poet writing plays. Percy Bysshe Shelley also wrote a challenging play Prometheus Unbound which I have not read yet because first I must read Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. Shelley’s play is considered a “closet drama” as are many other verse plays written by the Romantics and the Victorian poets. But the truth of the matter is that these plays are well beyond a modern audience.

Anyway, I think studying the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley will be invaluable to me since it will be a study of a kind of genius. It will be interesting to see what the scholars make of Shelley. However, it is already apparent that many scholars focus exclusively on his atheism  and radical politics while ignoring or dismissing the spiritual or metaphysical aspects. I have already bought some promising books like Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself by Ann Wroe. According to the Amazon description for this book:

Extraordinary for its elegance of style and complete immersion in Shelley’s work, Being Shelley aims to turn the poet’s life inside out: rather than tracing the events of a life in which poetry erupts occasionally, it tracks the inner journey of a spirit struggling to escape and create.

This would be extraordinarily ambitious if the author aims to trace Shelley’s spiritual development. I can’t wait to read this book but it will have to wait because I still have not read Shelley’s epic poems. To be honest, I scarcely know how to read an epic poem. You can find close readings of short poems like a sonnet but with an epic poem you are on your own.

Some other books I have recently ordered include:

  • Shelley’s Religion by Ellsworth Barnard
  • Shelley’s Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision by Carlos Baker
  • The Subtler Language by Earl R. Wasserman

I was able to find these rare books on eBay. Some of these books have no reviews on Amazon so it may be worthwhile for me to write a review and thereby show my apprehension of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

More interesting is the book Flight of the Skylark: The Development of Shelley’s Reputation which I ordered from a rare bookseller. This book describes how Shelley’s reputation has changed over the years so it will be particularly useful in showing how well Shelley’s poetic endeavor has been understood and how it has been understood.

I have also ordered a few books on literary analysis in general:

  • The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition by Meyer H. Abrams
  • The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry by Cleanth Brooks

Of course, these are all old books. I will not be reading any contemporary books on Percy Bysshe Shelley because modern scholars hate genius.

Finally I want to note that Percy Bysshe Shelley seemed to be on a spiritual quest as many of his epic poems concern the efforts of some heroic soul (a poet) to reach higher beauty (sometimes personified as an enchantress)  or an ideal world that is impossible to reach. His most famous metaphor for this quest is the moth struggling to reach a star. This is found in the short poem One Word Is Too Often Profaned:

The desire of the moth for the star,

A reference to this metaphor can be found in Yeats’s poem The Song of Wandering Aengus:

And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,

Even though this is not a direct use of the metaphor the poem has the universal theme: the search for love and beauty. In page 19 of Yeats And Shelley I marked this line:

We find here the typical romantic metaphor of the longing of the moth for the star and the impossibility of fulfilling that longing.

So much like Percy Bysshe Shelley and his sensitive souls on a quest for ultimate beauty, Yeats was a sensitive soul who yearned for the unattainable Maud Gonne. But for me Percy Bysshe Shelley represents an illustrious elite which I can join simply by demonstrating my true apprehension of the soul in a few reviews. What wealth and fame will surely come my way! I will surely be rewarded for doing all this reading and unpaid literary work! But I jest. There is great value in simply improving my understanding of my genius. Wealth and fame are like an unattainable beauty that should only be pursued by one who cannot imagine supreme beauty. Let lesser souls expend themselves to attain worthless things. I will attain the true objective of a great soul. I will be the moth that reaches the star!

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