Percy Shelley: Atheist, Adulterer, Vampire* Poet

Shelley was drawn to water and reflections of light on water; he drowned shortly before his 30th birthday.
He enjoyed telling Gothic horror tales and, essentially, freaking out the ladies...
William Blake seems to me to be a very apt match for Shelley, aesthetically and otherwise. Even the watery quality of his inks and paint seem right. I have no idea if Shelley knew of him or what he may have thought of Blake's work.
(Katie Sokoler/Gothamist)
Shelley paid to publish his "Declaration of Rights of Man" then sent a number of them aloft in homemade balloons...

photo of Lake Geneva by Damon Winter
"a bright planetary spirit enshrined in an earthly temple."
"a misunderstood nature, slain by ungenial elements"...
NB: It occurs to me that some readers passing through might not understand that I am working on the graphic and exhibit design of this show— that is: the typefaces, the colors, the display, light and text projections, banners, posters, etc. The exhibit is compiled and curated by the (very sharp and insightful) head of the Pforzheimer collection, and the equally perceptive visiting scholar from the Bodleian. Please know that my personal research, critical equitability and professional capabilities transcend any lightly tossed "hipster"/vampire comments I may present here.//

I am just starting work (as part of a team of 3) on the design of a small but significant exhibit at the New York Public Library
on the life of Romantic poet and early hipster Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792 – July 8, 1822). These are some of the mood images gathered to inspire the feel of the exhibit design—not necessarily directly representative of the mood of Shelley himself! The show is related to but quite different from Oxford University/Bodleian Library's Shelley's Ghost exhibit and catalog. Some of the items in the show will come from Oxford, but a majority will be pulled from the NYPL’s Pforzheimer Collection, one of the premier collections in the world for the study of English Romanticism.

I'm immersing myself in Shelley by reading two biographies: Richard Holmes' Shelley: The Pursuitand Being Shelley by Ann Wroe. The first a scrupulous and lively epic with tons of great information, the second an intriguing impressionistic collage of details and interpretations. Both books conjure  a fascinating but
(for me) manifestly irritating person. Intense, theatrical and self-dramatizing, he was almost insufferably myopic when it came to interpersonal relations and was definitely seemingly manic depressive.

Shelley has been described as radical, political agitator, atheist, vegetarian, adulterer, apostle of free love, brilliant poetic innovator and, once, *vampire (by his first wife Harriet). Seemingly unaware of his sometimes contradictory nature, he came across as hypocritical and perverse. Generous, he still left a string of unpaid debts (including those to friends) throughout his life. He had such empathy and "a horror of torturing animals it was impossible to express it" (he criticized Wordsworth for writing about the shining beauty of a caught trout), yet his insensitivity to the abandoned and pregnant Harriet contributed to her suicide. Still, even the most casual reader can't fail to be astonished by him.

The magic car moved on.
From the swift sweep of wings
The atmosphere in flaming sparkles flew;
And where the burning wheels
Eddied above the mountain's loftiest peak
Was traced a line of lightning.
Now far above a rock the utmost verge
Of the wide earth it flew,
The rival of the Andes, whose dark brow
Frowned o'er the silver sea.
Far, far below the chariot's stormy path,
Calm as a slumbering babe,
Tremendous ocean lay.
Its broad and silent mirror gave to view
The pale and waning stars,
The chariot's fiery track,
And the grey light of morn
Tingeing those fleecy clouds
That cradled in their folds the infant dawn.
The chariot seemed to fly
Through the abyss of an immense concave,
Radiant with million constellations, tinged
With shades of infinite colour,
And semicircled with a belt
Flashing incessant meteors.
The Daemon of the World (1816)


Anonymous said...

Angela, I hope you will consider reading Newman Ivey White's bio of Shelley (2 volumes, was the standard bio since mid-20th century). Although Richard Holmes' bio was one of my very favorite Shelley books to read (read it twice), I agree with some critic whose name I forget who called it misleading (possibly Stephen Spender, not sure, sorry!). Also acquaint yourself or re-acquaint yourself with Byron's famous quotation about Shelley. Shelley stinted on food in order to give his money away to friends. Also, I'm not certain he was manic-depressive. He might have been clinically depressed and subject to fits and raves due to his diet of bread and raisins (a combo blood sugar-depression state). I do not know for certain, and nobody does. His latest biographer, a retired psychologist named James Bieri, states somewhere in his bio that it is not possible to define specifically a precise diagnosis of Shelley's mental state. I have 5famous bios of Shelley. I think to do justice to his art or life, one should read all those, plus criticism by Cameron, Harold Bloom (one of the best explicators of Shelley poetry), Carlos Baker, Northrop Frye, M. H. Abrams, Donald Reiman, Stuart Curran, and others, and as well read Shelley's letters, and his defense of Poetry and his On Life and On Love. Shelley had flaws, and he was neurotic, but he educated himself and grew immensely in the short time he had on earth. His accomplishment is gigantic, as is his influence and success in prophesying things that would happen to society (socio-political acumen). His failings are real, but would probably be better assessed and shown to the world through the most exhaustive study one can afford to give. One look at his letters shows his great generosity and urbanity, civility and concern for others. That is in spite of the fact that he slept with multiple women while married, fathered illegitimate children, etc. So, as one of the more zealous of Shelley fans, I give you these words of caution in the hope that you will broaden your scope of investigation before making your mind up on facts that will affect your assemblage of a Shelleyan exhibit. Thank you and the very best luck with your work. --R. Zseleczky

angela said...

Thank you for your considered and very informative comments! I was going to get the Bloom next in fact.

I hope you understand that my post is slightly tongue in cheek. I am enormously excited to be working on this exhibit and my background research (and these images) are mostly to get an aesthetic sensibility and set a tone. We are creating the LOOK and display of the show— the head of the Pforzheimer Collection and the scholar from the Bodleian are CREATING the show editorially and curatorially.

Of course I dont *know* that S was manic depressive [I also don't believe he was a vampire :-)]— I was making this observation based on quotes from various letters/diaries cited in the 2 books. There was something so striking in hearing his states of mind alternated between rapid, forceful speech/argument and then utter lassitude and weakness.

I pass no acutely moral judgments on him though I do take exception to his treatment of Harriet. There seemed to be no capacity for seeing beyond his personal dogma— his letters were empathetically tone deaf.

I will certainly be updating this as the planning goes on.
Again thanks for your comments.

Tony Shreck said...

I am clearly coming late to the topic (I hope your exhibit went well!) but if you are still interested in Shelley and particularly if you are still interested in Harriet, I suggest Mark Twain's In Defense of Harriet Shelley and Leslie Hotson's Shelley's Lost Letters to Harriet.

Oh, and if you just want some fun with the Shelleys, Byron, Keats and vampires, try Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard, a fine bit of alternative/fantasy historical fiction.

angela said...

Tony-- Thanks for the great tips!
In Defense of Harriet Shelley by MARK TWAIN?? Wow I would never have thot... will look for


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