Today is the birthday (1792) of Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the major English Romantic poets, who is regarded as among the finest lyric and philosophical poets in the English language, and one of the most influential. Shelley did not see fame during his lifetime, but recognition of his achievements in poetry grew steadily following his death. Shelley was a key member of a close circle of visionary poets and writers that included Lord Byron, John Keats, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock and his own second wife, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. I have reviewed a good deal of Percy’s life already in my post on Mary (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/mary-shelley/ ) which you should consult for extra details. I’ll be much briefer here because I don’t care for Shelley’s poetry.
Shelley is perhaps best known for classic poems such as “Ozymandias”, “Ode to the West Wind”, “To a Skylark”, “Music, When Soft Voices Die”, “The Cloud” and The Masque of Anarchy. His other major works include a groundbreaking verse drama, The Cenci (1819), and long, visionary, philosophical poems such as Queen Mab (later reworked as The Daemon of the World), Alastor, The Revolt of Islam, Adonais, Prometheus Unbound (1820) – widely considered to be his masterpiece – Hellas: A Lyrical Drama (1821) and his final, unfinished work, The Triumph of Life (1822).
I gave a great deal of information about the middle section of his life in the Mary Shelley post, so let me look at the beginning and end. In 1804, Shelley entered Eton College, where he fared poorly, and was subjected to an almost daily mob torment at around noon by older boys. They grabbed his books from his hands and had his clothes pulled at and torn until he cried out madly in his high-pitched “cracked soprano” of a voice. This daily misery could be attributed to Shelley’s refusal to take part in fagging (menial labor for older boys) and his indifference towards sports and other popular activities. Because of these peculiarities he acquired the nickname “Mad Shelley”. He took a keen interest in science at Eton, which he would often apply to cause a surprising amount of mischief for a boy considered to be so sensible. Shelley would often use a frictional static electric machine to charge the door handle of his room, much to the amusement of other boys. His mischievous side was again demonstrated by “his last bit of naughtiness at school” which was to blow up a tree on Eton’s South Meadow with gunpowder. Despite these incidents, a contemporary of Shelley, W. H. Merie, recalled that Shelley made no friends at Eton.
On 10 April 1810 he matriculated at University College, Oxford. Legend has it that Shelley attended only one lecture while at Oxford, but frequently read sixteen hours a day. His first publication was a Gothic novel, Zastrozzi (1810), in which he vented his early atheistic worldview through the villain Zastrozzi; this was followed at the end of the year by St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian: A Romance (dated 1811).
In 1811 Shelley anonymously published a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism”, which was brought to the attention of the university administration, and he was called to appear before the college’s fellows, including the dean, George Rowley. His refusal to repudiate the authorship of the pamphlet resulted in his expulsion from Oxford on 25th March 1811. Shelley was given the choice to be reinstated after his father intervened, on the condition that he would have to recant his avowed views. His refusal to do so led to a falling-out with his father.
On 8th July 1822, less than a month before his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned in a sudden storm in the Gulf of Spezia while returning from Leghorn (Livorno) to Lerici in his sailing boat, the Don Juan. The name Don Juan, a compliment to Byron, was chosen by Edward John Trelawny, a member of the Shelley–Byron circle in Pisa. However, according to Mary Shelley’s testimony, Shelley changed it to Ariel, which annoyed Byron, who forced the painting of the words “Don Juan” on the mainsail. The vessel, an open boat, was custom-built in Genoa for Shelley. It did not capsize but sank. Mary Shelley wrongly claimed in her “Note on Poems of 1822” (1839) that the design had a defect and that the boat was never seaworthy. In fact, the Don Juan was seaworthy; the sinking was due to a severe storm and the poor seamanship of the three men on board. Numerous conspiracy theories circulated for decades: Shelley was murdered, pirates attacked them, etc. etc., but all have been debunked
Two other Englishmen were with Shelley on the boat. One was a retired naval officer, Edward Ellerker Williams; the other was a boatboy, Charles Vivien. The boat was found ten miles (16 km) offshore, and it was suggested that one side of the boat had been rammed and staved in by a much stronger vessel. However, the life raft was unused and still attached to the boat. The bodies were found completely clothed, including boots. Shelley’s body was washed ashore and later, in keeping with quarantine regulations, was cremated on the beach near Viareggio.
Shelley’s close circle of friends included some of the most important progressive thinkers of the day, including his father-in-law, the philosopher William Godwin, and Leigh Hunt. Though Shelley’s poetry and prose output remained steady throughout his life, most publishers and journals declined to publish his work for fear of being arrested for either blasphemy or sedition. Shelley’s poetry sometimes had only an underground readership during his day, but his poetic achievements are widely recognized today, and his political and social thought had an impact on the Chartist and other movements in England, and reach down to the present day. Shelley’s theories of economics and morality, for example, had a profound influence on Karl Marx; his early – perhaps first – writings on nonviolent resistance influenced Leo Tolstoy, whose writings on the subject in turn influenced Mahatma Gandhi, and through him Martin Luther King Jr. and others practicing nonviolence during the American civil rights movement.
I am fine with much of his political and philosophical inclinations, but I have enormous trouble getting through his poetry. I find the conscious use of archaic grammar and vocabulary tedious at best. To a Skylark is an exemplar:
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
I just can’t read further.
You could not by any stretch of the imagination call Shelley a foodie. His biographer Richard Stoddard noted that “He could have lived on bread alone without repining . . . Vegetables, and especially salads were acceptable.” Mary was the one who made sure he was fed, not that he noticed much. She “used to send him something to eat into the room where he habitually studied; but the plate frequently remained untouched for hours upon a bookshelf, and at the end of the day he might be heard asking, ‘Mary, have I dined?’” When her aunt Everina fell ill, Mary, far away in Rome, asked a friend to put together a care package of her own: “jelly, oranges, spongecakes and her favourite kale.” Kale became a frequent gift.
Kale had a vogue for some time as a “miracle food” – which it is not – but it was around long before the fad. In fact, it was commoner than cabbage in Britain for centuries as a basic green vegetable. Young kale used to be chopped up into what we called “spring greens” (along with colewort), when I was a boy. There is the secret for kale and for colewort (called collards in the US). If you let the leaves grow big, they also get tough and hard to cook. But if you cut them young in the spring, they are tender and easy to cook. That means you have to grow them yourself of course. Commercial greens are always going to be old and tough(er). The simplest way to prepare kale is to strip the leaves from their stalks by hand and to rip them up into small pieces. Wash the pieces thoroughly and then put them into a pot with the water still clinging to them. Cover tightly and steam until tender. With young leaves, this is not a long process, but will take trial and error. Drain and mix into the greens some olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and minced garlic. Reheat for a few minutes, and serve. Even Shelley would like that dish. If you want to get fancier, serve the kale with poached egg on top – or add some chopped ham in with the kale.