Shelley the lost Victorian

Well, I’ve finished Richard Holmes’s Shelley:The Pursuit. I didn’t find it as gripping as his superb biography of Coleridge, but it became more enjoyable as it went along. Mainly, I think, because Shelley became much more likeable as he matured personally, politically and poetically. Not that he became less radical, or completely lost the restlessness that tended towards recklessness, but he did become a good deal more nuanced and thoughtful. And what one particularly looks for in a poet – his poetry got much better. He’s never going to be one of my favourite poets, but I’m more positively inclined towards his work now than before I read the book.

An odd fact about the five major English Romantic poets: their lifespans were nested inside each other like a set of Russian dolls. Keats was born last and died first; Shelley was a little older and died shortly after him, and so on through Byron and Coleridge to Wordsworth, born way back in 1770 and going on to outlive them all.

The deaths of Keats, Shelley and Byron really do create an extraordinary discontinuity in English poetry. Not just in terms of the poetry they might have written – if Coleridge and Wordsworth are anything to go by, their later work might not have been very exciting – but just as part of the normal progression of generations of influence. Who knows how Browning’s poetry might have been affected if instead of Shelley the idealised poet, he’d had a chance to meet Shelley the neurotic radical.

It also mires a group of poets in the Regency who, by rights, ought to have been Victorians. The would have been getting on a bit by the time of many of the landmarks of High Victorianism; even Keats would have been 64 when The Origin of Species was published in 1859. Byron would be 73, assuming that he hadn’t died of syphilis or liver failure. But by that time they’d have lived through the coming of the railways, the full impact of the Industrial Revolution, the 1832 Reform Act, the abolition of slavery, the Irish potato famine, the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. Shelley would certainly have had a few opinions.

I suppose they might have been less influential if they were still alive. In the increasingly stern moral climate of the time, it might have been more difficult for people to see past the unconventional lifestyles of Byron and Shelley if they were sill alive and racketing about in Italy. There’s a fascinating comment I read once, which I think came from the letters of Fanny Burney, although Google isn’t helping me. She is returning someone’s copy of Oroonoko, which she found too indecent to read. She comments how strange it is that she should find herself unable to read a book in the privacy of her own room which she had heard in her youth being read aloud at polite parties. Perhaps Byron and Shelley would have inevitably changed with the times in the same way; perhaps they would have become increasingly embarrassing relics.

2 Comments

  1. 6 September 2006 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Well, Shelley doesn’t come off too well in the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, though he’s considerably better than Byron I suppose. I always found the Romantics a little silly, which did not stand me in great stead with some of my graduate school profs, but Shelley was my favorite. I was much taken with Prometheus, Unbound during my existentialism phase.

    I suppose Wordsworth isn’t silly but he’s as dull as Pope or Milton. That probably makes me a typical American — short attention span.

  2. Harry
    6 September 2006 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Shelley’s early adulthood was such a complete train-wreck: being sent down from university for publishing an atheist pamphlet, eloping at nineteen, getting clumsily involved in politics, leaving his first wife for the sixteen-year-old Mary Godwin, the entanglement with Mary’s sister and the suicide of his first wife. But he was only 24 by the time all that had happened. He seems to have grown up a lot as a result, and while he may not have become the dream son-in-law, his letters show him to be much more aware of his responsibilities and the consequences of his actions. Given a few more years, who knows what he would have become.

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