POETRY / Lines on this Shelley business: Percy Bysshe Shelley was born 200 years ago. The poet John Whitworth muses over some newly uncovered lyrical memories from those who knew him

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AN IMPORTANT literary find happily coincides with the 200th anniversary of Shelley's birth on 4 August. A lead casket containing unpublished poems by contemporaries has come mysteriously to light in Bournemouth, where Shelley's heart was finally buried. The following is a selection with commentary by John Whitworth.

THOMAS JEFFERSON HOGG

Shelley's friend at Oxford, co-author of the notorious pamphlet for which they were expelled. In old age he wrote a most racy life of the poet where he recorded Shelley's abiding interest in spectacular Science.

Eagerly & enthusiastically

Discoursing with increasing vehemence,

Bysshe made to show me various instruments:

A handle turn'd with great rapidity,

Caused num'rous fierce & crackling sparks t'ascend;

Percht on a glass-legged stool, he urged me to it

Till he was fill'd from top to toe with fluid

So his long, wild locks bristled & stood on end;

He show'd how a galvanic battery

Of several link'd jars took up a charge,

Continuing t'expatiate at large

The marvellous powers of electricity,

How kites in combination could collect

The ammunition of a thunderstorm,

And channel it, thro' one colossal form,

To a single point, stupendous in effect]

ELIZA WESTBROOK

Shelley's first wife's elder sister. Guilt caused him to grow to hate her and he even suggested she had engineered poor Harriet's suicide. The evening after Shelley's marriage a friend found him eating a supper of oysters alone and throwing the shells out of the doorway. 'This is a Shelley business,' he said and laughed ruefully.

He gave her Love and knew not what Love meant.

I gave a sister's quiet, officious care,

For I was dark & plain, but she was fair,

Fairest at Clapham School, in quiet content.

'God is a fable, Duty but a game',

(The pallid Serpent pump'd his poison in her)

'Your Rev'rent Parent is a Tyrant Sinner,

Marriage no better then an empty Name]'

Yet she became a Bride t'assuage his Lust -

No, not so much, to satisfy his Whim,

Which, being done, she meant no more to him

Than empty oyster shells & his disgust.

Deserted, scorned (he laughed & call'd her Whore

Whose only crime was being overfond),

One month her Body rotted in a pond;

His Soul shall burn in Hell for evermore.

MARY GODWIN

Shelley's second wife. Her famous novel was written when she was 19 at the instigation of Shelley and Byron (who told a story of vampires). The identification of her husband's schizophrenic nature with both Frankenstein and the monster was generally conceded, even at the time

Across the ice, to the glittering mountainside,

The gigantic, bounding Thing advanc'd toward me

With superhuman speed. The sight abhorr'd me.

Trembling with Rage & Horror then I cried:

'Curs'd be the day you first saw light] Curs'd be

The hand that formed you (though the hand be mine)]

Murderous Devil-child of Frankenstein,

Between us now is no community,

Begone]' But the Monster spoke in accents mild

Though bitter anguish burn'd in every feature,

'Can you, the Creator, so detest your Creature?

Can a Father cease to recognize his Child?

I too was Good ere Misery possess'd me.

What Soul's too base to be reclaim'd by Love?'

In silence then I heard his tale. Above

Th' eternal twinkling of the stars oppress'd me.

WILLIAM GODWIN

Mary's father, a rational, liberal anarchist, and husband of proto-feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft. He was often aghast at Shelley's ardent practice of his radical precept, particularly when the poet decamped with both his daughters - a moral position weakened by the fact that Shelley continued to pay his bills. It is very possible that the affair between Shelley and Mary was first consummated in St Pancras Churchyard where her mother is buried.

My Liberal Politics he turns to Treason,

Sows Dragons' Teeth with a distracted zeal,

Hawks insurrection through the Commonweal,

To a Mob, Unletter'd, Bestial, deaf to Reason.

His Rhymes are Revolution versified,

His Liberty is License to Deprave;

My Daughter ravish'd on her Mother's grave,

Our Friendship mock'd, his Marriage set aside.

With bloodshot eyes, with hair & dress disorder'd,

He waved a pistol, gripped a laudanum ampoule:

'I never part from these]' A fine example -

Thus is my Hospitality rewarded]

I bar my doors to him & count it shame

My virtuous Poverty requires his pelf.

Scorning his filthy lucre for myself,

I draw the cheques under another name.

LORD BYRON

Byron's attitude to Shelley could be ironic, but he defended him most vehemently in public. The bottles and fire-balloons were ineffably Shelleyan ways of spreading sedition in the West Country.

'Tyranny & Injustice] I know well

What vulgar violence is]' Courageous speech

To an Oxford Convocation met to teach

An 'Atheist' the readiest way to Hell.

'The Proofs of Xtianity being deficient'

Wherein lies Truth? (The Master of a College

Sacred to the pursuit of Human Knowledge

Found spaniel Tory Interest sufficient.)

Shelley was kind, as all Great Hearts are kind,

Friend to the Friendless, Champion of the Lost.

Gave of his store and scorn'd to count the cost,

Found passion in Equality of Mind.

Not borne by fire-balloons cerulean,

Nor sealed in vitro on the Atlantic Sea,

The 'Hellish Madness' of his poetry,

By slow degrees invests the Soul of Man.

The following verse is very doubtful. It is signed by a Mrs Laetitia Millichip who claimed to be able to raise departed spirits 'particularly those whose earthly nature bore the stamp of genius'. She was later convicted of fraud and ended her life in some obscurity in a Brussels lodging house.

We were the Blest - our Words breathed Sacred Power.

Words do have power & poets are their priests:

Words separate us from the virtuous Beasts

Careless of anything beyond the hour;

They chain our poor Humanity to Sorrow;

They fabricate the Dreams that are our Curse;

Show us the Better, make us choose the Worse,

And murder Yesterday to make Tomorrow.

God] but I raised a wordy, turdy midden;

My Works can fill two student haversacks,

Crowd one long shelf, feed biographic hacks

Picking like poultry over what's best hidden.

Our World was old & nothing would amend it,

Our morning vision faded, dim & dirty,

My poet's locks turned grey ere I was thirty,

And I was tired of Life and wished to end it.

Shelley and his two companions put out in an unseaworthy boat in threatening weather. An Italian captain, sighting them in a heavy sea, offered to take them on board but a shrill, high voice (Shelley's?) cried 'No]' The three bodies were washed up ten days later and cremated on the beach to comply with Italian quarantine regulations.

'Tennis And Sex And Death', poems by John Whitworth, is published by Peterloo Press at pounds 4.95.

Comments