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.

Harmison’s dew-pearled

The lark’s on the wing,
The snail’s on the thorn,
Harmison is on fire,
Panesar is taking key wickets,
Pietersen is holding his catches,
God’s in his heaven –
All’s right with the world!

As I’m sure Browning meant to say.

Tennyson, Browning, populism, Victoriana

A couple of posts back I lumped The Charge of the Light Brigade in with Kipling and Newbolt as ‘populist poetry’, as contrasted with ‘literary poetry’. I’m still not wild about that distinction, because it seems to imply an inverse correlation between accessibility and merit. But it does seem to capture some sort of truth. Notice it’s nothing to do with being ‘avant garde’ – in the comments to that post I contrasted Kipling and Hardy, and Hardy was no modernist. Highbrow vs. middlebrow would be part of the distinction, but that’s not quite right either.

Anyway. The Charge of the Light Brigade is interesting in this respect because Tennyson also wrote poems like In Memoriam A. H. H., which are (clearly?) ‘literary’. And Browning, who was also a ‘literary’ poet, wrote things like The Pied Piper of Hamelin. It’s a very Victorian tendency, a thick streak of populism in serious art. All those awful narrative paintings with titles like Faults On Both Sides, and the shamelessly crowd-pleasing novels of Dickens. In some ways it’s very democratic, so it seems a pity that the results were so awful. All aspects of the visual arts (architecture, painting, fashion, design) seemed to produce abomination after abomination, it’s one of the weakest of all periods of poetry in England; only the novel seemed to do well on it.

Does populism lead to bad art? Or were they both symptoms of something else?

Memorabilia

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!

But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at

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