BOOKS / Truly a prophet: Shelley was born 200 years ago next week. Abroad he is spoken of with awe, but in England his poetry has been falsified and abused. Now it's time to give him his due

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IN GEORGE ELIOT'S Middlemarch there is a passage in which Will Ladislaw, a young artist turned journalist, is likened to Shelley by the kindly squire Mr Brooke: 'He seems to me a kind of Shelley, you know . . . I don't mean as to anything objectionable - laxities or atheist, or anything of that kind . . . But he has the same sort of enthusiasm for liberty, freedom, emancipation - a fine thing under guidance.'

Middlemarch appeared in 1872, at the high noon of the Victorian age. But it is set much earlier, in the 1830s, a period when George Eliot's lover, G H Lewes, had written a biography of Shelley. Although his book was never published, we know that Lewes skirted tactfully round the poet's 'laxities and atheism'. Forty years on, George Eliot gave her own sly indication of how Shelley might be considered 'a fine thing under guidance' if only he could be separated from his objectionable behaviour and beliefs. As a Victorian writer, she knew she must make Ladislaw, however Shelleyan, behave as primly as a young clergyman.

A Shelley free of anything objectionable was one of the great quests of the 19th century. Many members of the literary establishment found him objectionable. Charles Lamb wrote that 'no one was ever the wiser or better for reading Shelley'. Carlyle called him 'weak in genius, weak in character (for these two always go together); a poor, thin, spasmodic, hectic, shrill and pallid being'. Matthew Arnold expressed his opinion that neither Shelley nor his poetry was entirely sane, dismissing his circle with the famous remark: 'What a set] What a world] . . . One feels sickened for ever on the subject of irregular relations'. Leslie Stephen objected to Shelley wishing for a world of classless, tribeless and nationless human beings, and suggested that his ideals led straight to barbarism; 'a slight and feverish rebel against the inevitable' was his verdict.

Ranged against these hostile voices, there was a small band of admirers of Shelley's political poetry and social views: followers of the Shelley who had written against monarchy, against the Church and Christianity, against the aristocracy, against the army, against big commercial interests, against marriage, against meat-eating, against the public schools, against the exclusion of women from the same rights and enjoyments as men. They took seriously 'Queen Mab', the poem in which he most clearly set out his ideas, and kept it in print. Robert Owen was among them, and many of the Chartists; but their influence was small.

The Shelley who achieved general popularity was neither Arnold's nor Owen's but an artificial construct, with his politics and his atheism lopped away and his private life tidied up. The creation of this inoffensive creature was a brilliant job, carried out partly by his family, beginning with Mary Shelley and continued by her son Percy, whose strong-minded wife made it her mission to sanctify the poet's memory at whatever cost to truth. 'Queen Mab', with its clever, explicit footnotes ('War, imprisonment, assassination and falsehood; deeds of unexampled and incomparable atrocity have made (Christianity) what it is'), was consigned to his Juvenilia, and it was suggested that Shelley, had he lived, was likely to have become a Christian.

The other vehicle for presenting a soft Shelley was the great Victorian anthology, the Golden Treasury, compiled by Palgrave in 1861, with much assistance from the then Laureate, Tennyson. Shelley was allotted the highest number of entries after Wordsworth and Shakespeare. The selection is certainly beautiful, but you would hardly guess from it that he had ever thought of anything but disembodied love, flowers, dreams, birds, the moon and cloudy sorrows associated with Time and Change. Here was a poet every Victorian maiden could safely copy into her album, and even allow into her dreams. So successfully was this purified image of the poet put across that at the centenary of Shelley's birth in 1892 Bernard Shaw was driven to the sardonic suggestion that a sculpted memorial might be put up showing 'Shelley in a tall hat, Bible in hand, leading his children on Sunday morning to the church of his native parish'.

But if the 19th century falsified Shelley's image, at least he was read. E M Forster's wonderful Shelley story of 1907, 'The Celestial Omnibus', takes us into two suburban households, one possessing two editions of Shelley (the wedding-present Shelley and the spare-room Shelley), the other seven. How many households possess even a single Shelley today? How many university courses include his work? At Oxford, Shelley's own university, the Merton professor of English, John Carey, says Shelley is read a little more than he was 10 years ago, but still very much less than Keats, or Coleridge and Wordsworth, who have a special paper devoted to them. And though there is said to be some revival of interest in Cambridge, nothing in England yet matches the Shelley studies at Yale.

How did this come about? It is not a matter of Shelley's language being more archaic or difficult than that of his fellow Romantics. It is certainly not his subject matter, which is if anything more relevant to our times than any of theirs. The blame for Shelley's virtual banishment from reading lists lies squarely with two men, T S Eliot and F R Leavis, who launched a double attack on him in the 1930s from which his reputation has still not recovered.

Eliot was probably the most famous and influential poet/critic of his day when, in 1933, he declared Shelley's poetry to be 'almost unreadable'. It is not unusual for a poet, in establishing his own poetic voice, to launch an attack on earlier poets, and when Eliot talked of Shelley's 'sing-song rhythms', and said his adjectives might as well be blanks, it may have been one way of asserting that his own rhythms and adjectives were of a different order. But he went much further. He labelled Shelley the poet of adolescence, possibly the most damaging description to set before young readers.

Eliot's objections to Shelley have as much to do with his politics as his poetics. Eliot was deeply conservative and religious. He objected to Shelley's radicalism, his desire for political reform, his opposition to the institutions of monarchy and the established churches, to the power of commercial interests and the aristocracy; and to his belief in sexual equality. These were what Eliot called the 'ideas of adolescence', 'shabby ideas' full of 'self-delusion' and 'very confused thinking'. On went the accusation. Shelley was 'humourless, pedantic and self-centred', and his character 'almost' that of a 'blackguard'. For good measure, Eliot threw in disparaging remarks about Shelley's wife Mary, without a mention of her essential and excellent work as editor of her husband's poetry, or her distinction as the author of Frankenstein.

Eliot's line of attack was repeated by other critics. Humphrey House, for instance, in a 1945 New Statesman essay called 'The Poet of Adolescence', suggested that if you still enjoyed Shelley as an adult it could not be because you had found something worthwhile in his poetry, but because there was 'an immature element in most adult situations'. The American poet and critic Allen Tate called Shelley's late poetry 'the wailing of a peevish boy'. Auden said his work was 'empty and unsympathetic' and, most damagingly, accused him of never looking at or listening to anything. He was, simply, 'a poet whose work I detest'. Ezra Pound said something similar.

Then F R Leavis took up Eliot's version of Shelley. Leavis taught at Cambridge and edited Scrutiny, and for several decades his voice carried more weight than that of any other teacher of English. The undergraduates who crowded into his lectures went on to teach in schools all over England, spreading his gospel with the enthusiasm of religious converts. In 1935 Leavis decreed that Shelley's imagery was confused, that he had 'a weak grasp upon the actual' and that he 'switched off' his intelligence when he wrote. Shelley, like most poets, wrote plenty of bad verse. That he also wrote some incomparable poems escaped Leavis, who mauled the 'Ode to the West Wind' and a minor lyric ('When the Lamp is Shattered') like a Rottweiler. When he had finished with the bleeding scraps, he pronounced his victim 'almost unreadable' - the verdict taken, of course, from Eliot.

In British universities, Shelley has remained accordingly almost unread. Abroad, his fame is great, and heads are shaken when you explain that the English are not much interested in Shelley's poetry. It is a sad story, especially as Eliot made a small recantation in the 1950s, praising Shelley for his Dantean qualities, and even quoting him in The Cocktail Party; but it was too late to undo the damage.

Falsified in the 19th century and persecuted in the 20th, Shelley may have to wait for the 21st century before he has his due as a poet, and is accepted for what he was and what he believed. He was a humanist poet, who held that we must take responsibility for what we do with the earth. He asked what our relation to the universe is, and how we are to live, and did not give comfortable answers. He did not believe in a kindly God, but described the power of the universe as 'remote, serene and inaccessible' in his poem 'Mont Blanc'; and in Prometheus Unbound he insisted that there can be no answer to the question of the origin of evil and suffering. Whatever power reigns over the universe, it is inaccessible.

Shelley wrote prophetically of how the world could be spoiled by commercial exploitation. 'Queen Mab' is a Green poem before its time:

All things are sold: the very light of Heaven

Is venal; Earth's unsparing gifts of love,

The smallest and most despicable things

That lurk in the abysses of the deep,

All objects of our life, even life itself,

And the poor pittance which the laws allow

Of liberty, the fellowship of man,

Those duties which his heart of human love

Should urge him to perform instinctively,

Are bought and sold as in a public mart

Of undisguising selfishness, that sets

On each its price, the stamp-mark of her reign.

His remarks seem eminently sane today when commerce, which 'sets the mark of selfishness' on the earth, is threatening its future. So does his long-mocked vegetarianism and frugal living. His view of religion as a dangerous, intolerant, aggressive force is still borne out by murderous fundamentalist activities and inter-religious strife. His hope that we should become less ridden by class, and by tribal and nationalist feeling, is more important than ever. His dislike of the principle behind monarchy, developed when England suffered under 'princes, the dregs of their dull race', is still worth pondering. His belief that women and men might be equal comrades is accepted in all civilised places, if not yet in the Garrick Club.

If his ideas are very good, so was a great deal of his poetry. In the 10 brief years of his working life, he wrote poems that cover an astounding range of tones and subjects, many rhythmically complex, many of perfect simplicity. If you want polemic, try 'The Mask of Anarchy':

I met Murder on the way -

He had a mask like Castlereagh -

Very smooth he looked, yet grim;

Seven bloodhounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might

Be in admirable plight,

For one by one, and two by two,

He tossed them human hearts to chew

Which from his wide cloak he drew.

If you want the liveliest, easiest, virtuoso conversational pieces, read 'Julian and Maddalo' or the 'Letter to Maria Gisborne'.

A few of his lyrics can stand beside Shakespeare's: 'A Widow Bird', 'One Word is Too Often Profaned', 'The Cold Earth Slept Below'. Not all his love poetry is dreamy and disembodied: parts of 'Epipsychidion' and the whole of 'To Constantia Singing' are deliciously erotic ('Even while I write, my burning cheeks are wet,/Alas, that the torn heart can bleed, but not forget]'). There is a witty Shelley and a bleak Shelley. He can laugh at himself ('The Aziola'), analyse himself ('The Two Spirits') and mourn himself as well as Keats in 'Adonais':

He has outsoared the shadow of our night;

Envy and calumny and hate and pain,

And that unrest which men miscall delight,

Can touch him not and torture not again.

From the contagion of the world's slow stain

He is secure, and now can never mourn

A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain. . .

Shelley said, shortly before his death at the age of 30, that he felt 90 years old. Perhaps he had a premonition of how his work was to be misrepresented and abused.

Claire Tomalin's 'Shelley and His World' is published in paperback by Penguin at pounds 5.99.

SHELLEY: A SHORT LIFE

I792 Born Percy Bysshe Shelley, 4 August, in Sussex.

1804-10 At Eton.

1811 Publishes The Necessity of Atheism and is sent down from Oxford. Quarrels with father; meets, elopes with and marries Harriet Westbrook.

1813 'Queen Mab'. Birth of daughter Ianthe.

1814 Leaves England for Continent in July with Mary Godwin and Jane Clairmont; returns to London in September. Birth of Charles Shelley to Harriet.

1816 Birth of William Shelley, to Mary. Switzerland with Mary and Jane. Friendship with Lord Byron. Writes 'Mont Blanc'. Suicide of Harriet. Marries Mary.

1817 Fails to obtain custody of Ianthe and Charles. Meets Keats. Birth of Clara Shelley.

1818 Goes abroad with Mary, Claire (formerly Jane) and children. Death of Clara. 'Julian and Maddalo'.

1819 Naples, Rome, Leghorn, Florence. Completes Prometheus, Death of William. 'Mask of Anarchy' and 'Ode to the West Wind'. Birth of Percy Florence.

1820 Pisa. Writes 'Letter to Maria Gisborne' and 'Ode to Liberty'

1821 'Defence of Poetry'. Death of Keats; writes 'Adonais'. Also 'Hellas' on Greek uprising.

1822 To Lerici. Working on 'Triumph of Life'. Mary has near-fatal miscarriage. Sails to Leghorn. Drowned, 8 July.

(Photograph omitted)

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