Sunday, August 26, 2007


Was reading Adam Kirsch's piece on Shelley in the New Yorker the other day, and figured I would add my two-cents worth.

It's not that I disagree with Kirsch exactly. It's just that trying to apprehend so passionate, so instinctive, so almost visceral a poet as Shelley through the lens of reason strikes me as somewhat wrong-headed. It's like criticizing the rationality of Jimi Hendrix songs. Shelley is not, no matter what he himself may claim, a great thinker. He is a creature of urge and will, a poet of unpremeditated imagination, and his poems are valuable because they represent, like no others, the glory of pure force. We do not expect the powers of nature to answer to calculation or consequence, and we must not demand this of Shelley, if we are to appreciate his gift.

Kirsch calls Shelley a Manichaeist, but to my mind he is something finer, more innocent - it is not so much that he considers himself above consequence as that he accepts consequence unconsidered. It is instructive, I think, to remember (as Kirsch reminds us) that Shelley dreams of being incarnate as the "wild west wind", a wind that is both "Destroyer and Preserver". We do not ask that the wind be just, or claim that its actions are right, but we recognize that for the wind to show more discernment would compromise forever its essential force, and we bow to the necessity of the destruction this implies. "How couldst thou become new if thou have not first become ashes" Nietzsche writes, describing the way of the 'creating one'. More than half a century before Also Sprach Zarathustra, Shelley already understood, and lived, its ideal.

You can argue, of course, that this is not how Shelley saw himself ("poets are the unacknowledged legislators", etc. etc.), but just because he took himself seriously as a political thinker and philosopher is no reason for us to do so. Since when do we allow our literary heroes the luxury of defining the terms on which we engage them? And is a writer as instinctive as Shelley likely to be a reliable guide to his own meaning, his own value? Can the Superman ever be conscious of being the Superman?

Kirsch cites Matthew Arnold as criticizing Shelley for his "utter deficiency in humor" (a criticism, by the way, which seems hilarious coming from Arnold) and goes on to say that Shelley "could not step outside himself and look impartially at his own weaknesses, limitations and failures". This is true, but isn't a lack of self awareness, a fundamental inability to see oneself as ridiculous, the very essence of the Romantic? Could Shelley really have been half the poet he is if he had allowed himself to see the absurdity of his position, the impracticability of his dreams? "Lift not the painted veil that those who live call life" Shelley admonishes us, and can we fault him for this creed even as we admire the majesty and vision of the work it made possible?

Yes, Shelley is naive [1]. Yes, his fanciful flights in the face of the impossible represent a kind of arrogance. But what poet, in his most secret heart, does not share this dream of power, this dream that, despite what Auden has told us and what we know ourselves to be true, our words will make something happen, will be "to the unawakened earth, the trumpet of a prophecy"? Is it even possible to write without such belief? And if believing this, and having the audacity to say it out aloud, makes Shelley arrogant and naive then it is an arrogance and a naivete we all share.
Kirsch's argument, it seems to me, is based on a misapprehension that is perhaps best captured in his describing Shelley as "a man who believes he is an angel". But it is not clear to me that Shelley did believe that he was an angel, at least not in anything other than a Blake-ian sense. The right word, I suspect, would be spirit, or, to borrow from Milosz, daimonion. In 'Ars Poetica?', Milosz writes:

"...poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
though it's an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
It's hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they're put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.

What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons"
This is the essence of Shelley's 'psychic' nature, his unreasonableness, his connection to primeval sources of energy and imagination that are neither angelic nor demonic, but simply a kind of life force. Graves, in the White Goddess, argues that a true poem is an invocation of "the ancient power of fright and lust", and it is surely these very powers that Shelley senses speaking through him [2].

It is time, I think, that we put to rest the name of Ariel, so often invoked when we speak of Shelley. The fault for this is chiefly Shelley's own, since it is a nickname he used in speaking of himself in his poems to Jane Williams, though the fact that it was also the name of the boat he drowned in, and its use by Maurois as the title of his quasi-biography may have cemented the damage.

I say damage because it's always seemed to me that the more apt figure for Shelley is his beloved Prometheus. Because Shelley is, truly, a rebel, a bringer of fire, a poet of "sparks and ashes": you have only to read his poetry to feel the passion blazing from every page. Sometimes it flickers, sometimes it burns with a melancholy glow, sometimes it rages out of control and makes us blanch, and sometimes - at its very best- it roars clear and triumphant in the magnificence of its tongues. But however it burns, it is the raw material of poetry at its most unadulterated, and if we continue to be both embarrassed and astounded by Shelley's gift, it is in the hope that some spark of that true fire may find its way into the dry kindling of our own words.


[1] Actually, I'm not so sure of this - his poems project a naive idealism, but how much of this is genuine misguidedness and how much of it is a willing suspension of knowledge in the interest of the message? Certainly there is enough melancholy in Shelley's poems to suggest that he didn't see the world as being particularly rosy. Couldn't one argue that the very high-handedness with which Shelley repeatedly evokes the triumph of life and liberty is proof of his knowledge that these visions of his were mere fantasy, impossible to achieve in the real world, and therefore all the more important to cling to in poetry, with the stubbornness of an adolescent who denies his own disillusion?

[2] Speaking of the Romantics, Graves writes: "The typical Romantic poet of the nineteenth century was physically degenerate, or ailing, addicted to drugs and melancholia, critically unbalanced and a true poet only in his fatalistic regard for the Goddess as the mistress who commanded his destiny".


Anita said...

Wasn't Shelley also a vegetarian?

(Or am I thinking of someone else?)

Alok said...

Great essay, lots to chew on. This might seem blasphemous to poetry lovers but i am one of those people who likes reading about poets and poetry more than reading poetry itself. Not that i have read much but still...

also i found this comment interesting

This is true, but isn't a lack of self awareness, a fundamental inability to see oneself as ridiculous, the very essence of the Romantic? Could Shelley really have been half the poet he is if he had allowed himself to see the absurdity of his position, the impracticability of his dreams?

It is interesting you define self-awareness in this way -- an awareness of self in relation to the outside world and not just an extra-ordinary sensitivity of mind and the senses. I don't really agree that shelley couldn't have been a great poet if he had this other self-awareness.This is perhaps the reason why the romantics seem to be dated and prone to parody and why things like humour and irony are so alien to them. (Rousseau and Wordsworth are of course at the extremes).

May be this is also the reason why when it comes to romantic types and worldview my favourites are the heroes in so much of the nineteenth century russian literature. Onegin, Pechorin and so many others have this other self-awareness too, they are not just over sensitive but are also aware of how the world works. Of course it all ulimately leads to an extreme alienation and psychosis (like in Underground Man), but that's the stuff of poetry too.

Falstaff said...

anita: Yes, he was.

alok: Yes, that is blasphemous, but one forgives you. If you're interested in that sort of thing, have you read Stephen Dunn's Walking Light? Or Milosz's The Witness of Poetry? Or practically anything by Zagajewski?

I think one needs to distinguish between Romanticism per se and Shelley's adherence to it. It is certainly possible to not care for the Romantics (though I must confess to not sharing that disinterest) but to the extent that Shelley represents the epitome of that 'type' it seems silly to criticize him for it. What can Shelley be if not a Romantic? His adherence to romanticism isn't a secondary stylistic choice - it's the essence of who he is, and what his poetry represents. It's what we value him for. What would be the point of a 'Shelley' who was ironic or funny - even assuming he could write like that (and I have no reason to believe this) isn't it likely that he would seem even more dated, an ancient predecessor of the likes of Herbert and Larkin? Why would we care to read him? Criticizing Shelley for not being humorous and ironic is like criticizing Fra Angelico for not embracing cubism.

Alok said...

I have read Susan Sontag's essay on Zagajewski, i know that's like two steps far removed. essay on a poet who also writes essays about poetry... have read milosz'a abc and captive mind (botn non-poetry books) but not the book you mention.

actually the only poetry-essay book i have read in full is The mirror and the Lamp by M. H. Abrahams even though many of the references in it completely passed me by. you must have read it already. Will see if i can find the books you mention.

what interested me in the essay and also your comment about self-awareness was whether it was possible that someone gifted with a romantic spirit can have important things to say about politis, ethics and collective life too? or are they incompatible by definition? This is what fascinates me so much about the russians. their struggle to find a common ground between ethics and aesthetics.

Alok said...

the latest new yorker has one on Dante. How about another commentary? :)

Falstaff said...

Alok:"whether it was possible that someone gifted with a romantic spirit can have important things to say about politis, ethics and collective life too?"

I think they can certainly say important things. I'm not sure whether they can say practical things. To the extent that political action requires a certain amount of pragmatism, of cynical calculation, of compromise I think it is incompatible with a romantic temperament. That doesn't mean what the romantics are saying can't be important. Just that it's not practical. You could have a romantic ideologue, but I'm not sure you can have a romantic politician.

Also, of course, we need to distinguish between the person and the spirit. I can certainly imagine someone capable of writing gloriously romantic poetry and also capable of being an important political activist - I just don't think a poem with a coherent, practical political message can also be Romantic. And vice versa.

And yes, I saw the piece on Dante. Let's see. I have to confess I'm much less familiar with Dante than I am with Shelley. And the only thing I've ever really cared for is the Inferno.