Tag Archives: Mary Shelley

Percy Shelley, Why Do I Love Thee?

18 May

Lord Byron is the epitome of Romanticism – he was ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, a lonely and misunderstood individual who wrote poetry, led a life filled with love affairs and travels, he fought in Greece, he has a literary hero named after him. To dream of being his muse, well ‘the pleasure, the privilege is mine‘. Since I named my blog after him, these verses sound even sweeter on my lips:”Farewell, my young Muse! since we now can ne’er meet“. With all that said, I decree that my heart still goes to Shelley all the way. I’ve always preferred him more for I see him as a gentler one, both his poetry and lifestyle are more my cup of tea. Well, Percy Bysshe Shelley, why do I love thee, let me count the reasons.

a Percy Shelley 1

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1)Intellect

First of all, I’m astonished by his ferocious intellect and hunger for knowledge. As a student, he was said to have attended only one lecture at Oxford and often spent up to sixteen hours a day reading. In addition to being well read and having rich vocabulary, Shelley was also good at languages, being proficient in ancient Greek and Italian. (“Shelley was an excellent classicist, and sufficiently proficient in ancient Greek to make, as an adult, a fine translation of Plato’s Symposium.” (1) and “Among the major Romantic poets, Byron and Shelley spent the most time in Italy (…) and they became proficient in its language and well-read in its literature.” (2) Let’s just remember that he died a month before his 30th birthday, and in that short life he managed to acquire such vast amount of knowledge.

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2) Rebelliousness

Secondly, a typical romantic trait – rebelliousness. As I already mentioned, legend has it that he only attended one lecture while at Oxford from which he was expelled after less than a year for “writing and circulating a pamphlet promoting atheism.” (3) Whereas I am not promoting atheism for I am not an atheist, at the time when religion, Christianity in particular, was all too-dominant in everyday life, this was a necessary thing to be done. Therefore, I don’t see it as a promotion of atheism as much as a revolt against Christianity. What I admire the most about about this story is that, when asked by his father to renounce his atheist views and his pamphlet, Shelley refused, knowing that it meant the end of the financial support. After that, at the age of 19, he eloped to Scotland with the 16-year old schoolgirl Harriet Westbrook. I mean, just look at his portrait; untamed hair, unbuttoned shirt, wild protruding stare of those blue eyes, a quill in his hand – if that’s not a portrait of a rebellious romantic hero, I haven’t got a clue what is.

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3) Free Love

As we can see from his elopement with Harriet, Shelley had quite modern views on love and marriage. He went on to live with Mary until he died, but he did have platonic and non-platonic relationships with other women, and, with each others permission, both Mary and Percy occasionally flirted with other people. I see both relationships and an institution of marriage as rather restricting affairs, and therefore I like Shelley’s view on it and his promotion of free love. In poem ‘Queen Mab’, Shelley celebrates all the things I’ve mentioned here: atheism, vegetarianism, republicanism and – free love.

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3) Social and political activism

Shelley admired William Godwin’s socialist philosophy that was always one step away from anarchism, and imbued such ideas in his own writing and activities. He was politically active and fought for social rights which speaks for itself how seriously he considered problems of social equality to be, this is the ‘Res, Non Verba’ approach which I quite like. I think the case of Byron going to Greece and fighting for independence was a pure debauchery or licentiousness, but with Shelley it was truly about fighting for what he believed to be right, in a civilised and polite manner, defending his arguments with intelligence and eloquence. An example of his active involvement with social problems: “Distracted by political events, he visited Ireland shortly afterward in order to engage in radical pamphleteering. Here he wrote his Addres to the Irish People and was seen at several nationalist rallies. His activities earned him the unfavourable attention of the British government.” (4)

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4) Poetry

Rather an obvious argument but I ardently love his poems, which is necessary when it comes to loving a poet. I think both Keats and Shelley cherished a cult of pure beauty in their poems. I know many of Shelley’s shorter poems by heart but these are some of my favourite:

A Lament

O world! O life! O time!
On whose last steps I climb,
Trembling at that where I had stood before;
When will return the glory of your prime?
No more — Oh, never more!….“(5)

and

Mutability

(…) We rest—a dream  has power to poison sleep;
    We rise—one wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep,
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:—
 
                                       IV.
It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,
    The path of its departure still is free;
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
    Nought may endure but Mutability.” (6)
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5) Richness of expression
Shelley somehow managed to combine the social role of art with pure aestheticism, which is a pursuit that often ends unsuccessfully. (Other good examples of combining these two polar opposites would be the songs by Manic Street Preachers and Kitchen sink realism in films) Shelley’s choice of words and stylistic devices is pure beauty. The book The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley states that Percy ‘preferred more learned, polysyllabic words’ and it gives the examples of his revision of Mary’s manuscript of Frankenstein. He changes Mary’s words ‘have’ to ‘possess’, ‘wish’ to ‘desire’ and my favourite – ‘we were all equal’ to ‘neither of us possessed the slightest pre-eminence over the other’. (7) This may sound snobbish, and may cause his texts to be a bit harder to understand sometimes, but he was a well read and eloquent person and why should he refrain himself from using rich vocabulary?

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6) Vegetarianism

Being a vegetarian and promoting vegetarianism is, in my opinion, a sign of true humanity and one of Shelley’s greatest debts to society. I am a vegetarian, purely for ethical reasons, and I am immensely glad that both Mary and Percy Shelley were too. Shelley wrote several essays on the subject, most notable is ‘A Vindication of Natural Diet’, but he does make references on the subject in his other poems and dramas. For example, in Prometheus Unbound he writesI wish no living thing to suffer pain“(8), and in The Revolt of Islam “Never again may blood of bird or beast/ Stain with its venomous stream a human feast,/ To the pure skies in accusation steaming.” It’s easy to understand that in his time vegetarianism was radical, but one would think that in our day and age everyone would follow a ‘natural diet’, or perhaps it’s just my idealism. Shelley’s commitment didn’t stop at eating habits: “…Shelley went further, refusing to wear material made from animals, including wool and leather. Inveighing against  “the muffling of our bodies in superfluous apparel,” he preferred going hatless and eschewed a heavy overcoat for a long black coat made of cotton jean.” (9)

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Mary and Percy Shelley – ‘A Gothic Romance’

9 May

Yesterday’s tranquil afternoon filled my soul with excitement and overwhelming joy for it rained heavily and dark clouds pervaded the sky. I was listening to Chopin and reading Shelley’s poems by candlelight, relishing in the sounds of wind whispering through the trees, and a peaceful birdsong. I couldn’t have hoped for a more atmospheric afternoon! Then suddenly, the sky turned golden, mottled with purple, like in one of Turner’s paintings. After a picturesque storm, all was calm again. The love story of Mary and Percy Shelley, one of the wildest and most interesting romances in history, was on my mind the entire afternoon.

1830s mary shelley

Mary Shelley was born on 30 August 1797. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a philosopher and the founder of feminism, and died ten days after the birth of her daughter Mary. Mary’s father was William Godwin, a fellow philosopher and a prominent thinker, and the first modern proponent of anarchism. As she grew up, Mary accepted her mother’s liberal attitudes and outspokenness, and soaked up her father’s ideas like a good pupil. She was eager for knowledge from a young age, and growing up in an intellectually fruitful environment had served only to increase her intellectual curiosity. She met Wordsworth and Coleridge as a child, for they had been her father’s guests, and, along with excessive reading, she was taught by her father a great variety of subjects.

1797. Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie                                     1797. Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

All in all, she had received a sophisticated, the least to say,  an unusual education for a girl at the time. Her father described her at fifteen as ‘singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.‘ Still, Mary’s childhood had a dark side too. Firstly, she was aware that no matter how innocent she may be now, she had caused her mother death, and this thought seemed never to have left her. Secondly, her father remarried in 1802 to Mary Jane Clairmont who brought her own two children into the marriage. Mary never got along with her stepmother.

1775-1800. A Welsh Sunset River Landscape by Paul Sandby, showing rather better weather than most 'sublime' landscapes1775-1800. A Welsh Sunset River Landscape by Paul Sandby, showing rather better weather than most ‘sublime’ landscapes

Lonely and isolated, young Mary could often be found reading by her mother’s grave, relishing in the tranquility, in the behold of her mother’s spirit. She also liked to daydream, escaping the difficulties of reality into a world of imagination. It was during her two stays in Scotland in the summer of 1812 and 1813 that her imaginings turned into profound stories. Namely, Mary stayed with the family or a radical thinker William Baxter in Scotland, where she revelled in the magnificent landscapes and in the companionship of his four daughters. Mary later recalled: ‘I wrote then—but in a most common-place style. It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered.

1819. Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint1840. mary shelley

Portraits of Percy Shelley (1819) and Mary Shelley (1840)

Indeed, Mary was familiar with many philosophers of the time through her father, but one lad, one passionate, eloquent and rebellious young poet had caught her eye – Percy Bysshe Shelley. On 5 May 1814 Percy visited Godwin’s bookshop in London’s East End in hopes of meeting Mary; a lady he had previously heard of, but had never laid his eyes on. He had just been expelled from Oxford for an independent mind is a dangerous thing, and, bored with his wife Harriet, he sought for a more intellectual female companionship. Percy first befriended Godwin with promises of financial help, but later snatched his darling Mary from his arms. Seems like this was a lose-lose situation for Gowdin for he could have known better; never trust a young man’s promises.

Godwin–Shelley family treeGodwin-Shelley Family Tree

Percy Bysshe Shelley was an exciting adventure and a passionate love that Mary had so anxiously expected. A vegetarian, an advocate of free love, and a man married to Harriet Westbrook with whom he had eloped only three years earlier. ‘The son of a man of fortune in Sussex‘ and ‘heir by entail to an estate of 6,000 £ per an‘ was how he informed Godwin, and offered himself as a devoted disciple. Still, Percy had difficulties gaining access to money until he inherited his estate because his family disapproved of his engagements in projects of ‘political justice’. His inability or unwillingness to pay off Godwin’s debts infuriated Godwin. The subsequent elopement with Mary served only to deepen Godwin’s sense of betrayal.

Harriet Westbrook, who was the passionate love of his life merely a year ago, had by now bored him to death. He accused her of marrying him for money, and abandoned both her and their daughter Elizabeth Ianthe (born in June 1813) before their second child was born. Harriet was devastated.

1827. On 26 June 1814, Mary Godwin declared her love for Percy Shelley at Mary Wollstonecraft's graveside in the cemetery of St Pancras Old ChurchCemetary of St Pancras Old Church in central London

The church was restored in c.1850, and after. I visited late in a winter afternoon and it felt lonely, separated from city life; the atmosphere was curiously quiet, almost countryside.‘ (source)

St Pancras Old Church 2St Pancras Old Church today

Percy’s affection towards Mary blossomed and he lavished her with attention, joyful that he had finally found a lady intellectually equal to him. They soon began meeting each other secretly at Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard. London has greatly changed since Romantic era and St Pancras Church was, in those times, an isolated place; an oasis of tranquility by the River Fleet. On 26 June 1814 Mary declared her love for Percy Shelley at her mother’s graveside, under a starlit sky. Tombs glistening in the moonlight witnessed the endearments the two lovers whispered through the night.

Mary was nearly seventeen, and Percy nearly twenty two. William Godwin disapproved their relationship and Mary was confused. She could not apprehend her father’s worries for she saw both Percy and their love affair as the embodiment of her parents’ liberal ideas of the 1790s. Despite being a good daughter, Mary rebelled against her father’s advice and continues the love affair of her life.

Shelley's travels in 1816Map showing Shelley and Byron’s travels in 1814 and 1816

On 28 July 1814, the couple eloped to France, taking Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, with them. Mary’s older half-sister, eighteen year old Fanny Imlay was left behind, to her great dismay, for she too had fallen in love with Percy. While traveling, the trio amused themselves by reading, mostly works of Shakespeare, Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft. They also kept a joint journal, and continued writing works of their own. Traveling by donkey, mule, carriage, and foot through a a France recently ravaged by war, brought them to Switzerland.

At Lucerne, however, the lack of money forced them to turn back. Mary Shelley later recalled ‘It was acting in a novel, being an incarnate romance.‘ The trio allegedly visited ‘Frankenstein Castle’ in the Odenwald, on their way to Lake Geneva. It was during that trip that Mary became acquainted with the story of Conrad Dipper, an anatomist and a former resident of the mentioned castle, and a possible prototype for Doctor Frankenstein.

‘Lord Byron and his physician settled themselves in Villa Diodati; mysterious place hidden in the trees, in the darkness of the large pines, while the Shelleys rented a smaller, less sumptuous villa nearby.’

In 1815 Mary faced the loss of her first child, a girl named Clara who died thirteen days after birth. In May 1816, Mary, Percy and their son William, born the same year, traveled to Geneva where they spent the infamous ‘summer without sun‘ in the company of Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont and John William Polidori, Byron’s physician. I have already written a post about this event, ‘Year without a Summer – Its effect on Art and literature‘ in detail, here.

In short, the tranquil, bleak and desolate atmosphere was inspiration for a group of young poets and writers. What started as a challenge to write a ghost story, turned into a hauntingly magnificent novel Frankenstein. Mary was just nineteen years old when she wrote the novel, but in the companion of such geniuses as were Byron and Shelley, she had not dared to present them with a less haunting story. This group of ‘Romantic era hippies’ returned to England in Autumn of 1816, where Percy and Mary would be greeted with sad news. Fanny Imlay, Mary’s older half-sister, born illegitimately to Mary Wollstonecraft before she met Godwin, had committed suicide 9 October 1816 by taking an overdose of laudanum at an inn in Swansea, Wales. She was twenty-two years old, and already so unbearably depressed, lonely and neglected. Motivation for the suicide remains unclear; some suggest it was her unrequited love for Shelley.

Shelley’s verses for Fanny:

Her voice did quiver as we parted,
Yet knew I not that heart was broken
From which it came, and I departed
Heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery—O Misery,
This world is all too wide for thee.

1816. Evening Dress, Ackermann's Repository, June 1815. Walking Dress, Ackermann's Repository, May

Fashion 1814-16

In December, another sad event happened, Shelley’s wife Harriet had committed suicide too. Still, Percy and Mary got married shortly afterwards. The marriage denoted Mary’s reconciliation with her father, for she had not spoken with him since her elopement. Although W. Godwin detested marriage in theory, his opinion was different when it came to his daughter. Although devoted to her husband, their marriage had not been the easiest. Wherever Shelley went, the children seemed to follow. Free love had its price.

In 1818, the couple went to Italy with no intentions of returning. Once there, they never settled in one place for too long. Time was spent in socialising, writing, reading, learning and sightseeing. However, their ‘Italian adventure‘ was overshadowed by personal tragedies and infidelities. Mary, who had inherited her mother’s melancholic streak, became depressed and isolated after the loss of her children, William and Clara. Percy sought happiness outside the family home, and in December 1818 Shelley’s daughter was born by an unmarried woman. Still, Shelley expressed Mary’s isolation from him:

My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,

And left me in this dreary world alone?

Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—

But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road

That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.

For thine own sake I cannot follow thee

Do thou return for mine.

1889. The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier

Years spent in Italy were the most creative and intellectually active period in their lives. In the Summer of 1822, the couple moved to isolated Villa Magni, in San Terenzo in the Bay of Lerici. On 8 July the same year, Mary’s life was struck by a sad event, again – Percy drowned while sailing back from Livorno to Lerici after meeting with Leigh Hunt and discussing their newly printed journal, The Liberal. Mary dedicated the rest of her life to preserving Shelley’s poems from falling into oblivion.

Henri Fuseli – The Romantic Nightmare

22 Oct

“One of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams.” – Fuseli

1781. The Nightmare - Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli painted ‘The Nightmare‘, which remained his best-known work, in 1781. and the most interesting thing about this painting is that it simultaneously portrays a sleeping woman and the content of her nightmare. At the time it was painted, the overt sexuality repelled the critics. Later, however, the subject of the painting was interpreted as anticipating Freudian ideas about the unconscious.

The Nightmare was first exhibited in 1782. at the Royal Academy of London, and it instantly became famous. Painted in chiaroscuro, the painting depicts a woman stretched on the bed and sleeping. The sleeper seems lifeless, lying in a pose that was believed to encourage nightmares, and her face expression indicates the nightmare she has. The interior is contemporary and fashionable, and so are the sleeper’s clothes. While the foreground is light, elegant and rational, the background is darker, painted in deep reds, yellows and ochers, and it’s where the nightmare resides; both the mare (horse) and the incubus peek on the sleeper from the background.  That conflict between the light, clean, formal and rational; the foreground, and the mysterious, imaginary, dreamy and wild background marks the contrast between Classicism and Romanticism.

The subject itself is ‘Romantic‘; sleep and dreams, mysteries and the unknown; something very appealing to artists in Romanticism. The painting was likely inspired by Fuseli’s waking dreams, which were experienced by his contemporaries as well. Fuseli considered those dreams to be related to folkloric beliefs like the Germanic tales about demons and witches that possessed people who slept alone. The early meaning of ‘nightmare’ included the sleepers experience of weight on the chest, along with sleep paralysis and a feeling of dread. This painting includes many of the ideas associated with these folkloric tales and beliefs; a demon is crouched on woman’s chest and a horse is peeking through the curtain.

The image of a woman on the painting, and her very expressive pose, especially for those times, was inspired by Fuseli’s unrequited love, a young woman named Anna Landholdt whom he wanted to marry but whose father strongly objected. Also, Fuseli was known to have had numerous erotic prints in his possession. However, in the twentieth century, the painting was interpreted as anticipating Freudian ideas about the unconscious. Sigmund Freud believed that the purpose of dreams is to look in to unconscious urges and seek to fulfill them subconsciously.

The Nightmare inspired many other artists ever since it was painted, most notably Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe; both of them Romantic authors. A scene in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus where the Creature murders Victor’s wife Elizabeth, and she’s seen lying death on the bed – “She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features half covered by hair.” Also, the story in the novel has some similarities with Fuseli’s life; just as Fuseli’s incubus is infused with the artist’s emotions in seeing his beloved Anna marrying another man, Shelley’s Creature promises to revenge on Victor on the night of his wedding.

Edgar Allan Poe mentions Fuseli’s work, or style of painting, in his story The Fall of the House of Usher (1839.) Story’s narrator compares one of the paintings in the Usher House with Fuseli’s painting, and reveals that “irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm.” Both Fuseli and Poe shared an unusual interest in the subconscious; the land of dreams, death and imagination.

Year without a Summer – Its effect on Art and Literature

26 Aug

Year 1816. is known as the Year without a Summer due to an eruption of a great Mount Tambora volcano in East India (today’s Indonesia). The volcano eruption which lasted from 5th to 15th April 1815. caused a volcanic winter; a reduction in global temperatures caused by vast amounts of volcanic ash obscuring the Sun. However, this very summer proved to be inspirational for Mary Shelley and her circle of friends.

1828. Chichester Canal's vivid colours may have been influenced by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. - Turner1828. Chichester Canal’s vivid colours may have been influenced by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. – J. M.W. Turner

It rained heavily in April 1816, and in May too and that’s when Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, along with his lover Claire Clairmont and his physician John William Polidori headed to Switzerland, planning to spend their summer by the beautiful Lake Geneva. Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, who just turned eighteen in April, was a lively, voluptuous brunette who caught Lord Byron’s eye, and was already pregnant with his child. The party arrived at Geneva on 14th May 1816. and Lord Byron joined them on the 25th May. They rented neighbouring houses on the shores of Lake Geneva. Lord Byron and his physician settled themselves in Villa Diodati; mysterious place hidden in the trees, in the darkness of the large pines, while the Shelleys rented a smaller, less sumptuous villa nearby.

‘It proved a wet, ungenial summer’, remembered Mary in 1831, ‘and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house’. Memorable tranquil, bleak and desolate atmosphere proved to be inspirational despite the long rainy afternoons without a glimpse of sun. The landscapes, frightening and lonely, only added to the atmosphere, and even after many years Mary remembered them clearly, as she later recorded in her work ‘Never was a scene more awefully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness; the vast expanse of snow was chequered only by these gigantic pines, and the poles that marked our road: no river or rock-encircled lawn relieved the eye, by adding the picturesque to the sublime’.

The group amused themselves by reading German horror stories and discussing, among other things, galvanism, by a log fire in Byron’s villa where the group usually gathered. There, on the lake Geneva, in the dreary May, Percy Shelley first met Lord Byron and the two were having endless discussions; they needed nobody else, nor did they noticed the other guests. It was in one of these long, tranquil, rainy afternoons that the idea of a ghost story arose. The tension in the villa hadn’t helped; Polidori was becoming more and more interested in Mary who showed no accept of his affection, and, at the same time, Claire was pretty much relentlessly fixated on Lord Byron whereas to him she has became dull a long time ago. This claustrophobic atmosphere proved to be hard for Percy who found himself slipping into a mood of oppression and morbidity. One rainy night, as the guest were all sitting by the fire in the great room, Lord Byron read a few verses from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Christabel’. It the poem, a character Geraldine (who appears as a women but is in fact Lamia, a disguised serpent) seeks not only the physical but also the spiritual possessions of Christabel who is innocent and beautiful. Percy seemed to be very impressed, perhaps with the poem itself, perhaps with the hypnotic way Lord Byron recited it, still, he fled the room screaming, in horror. He later explained his sudden departure by the sudden mental of a woman who had eyes instead of nipples on her breasts. Polinori later used this event in his novel Vampyre, written originally as a short story during the same holiday in Geneva. In only six years time, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Polidori would all be death.

Some verses from Christabel:

‘(…) There she sees a damsel bright,
Dressed in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandaled were;
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess, ‘t was frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she-
Beautiful exceedingly!’

Later that night Mary had a mental vision too, in the darkness and tranquility of a stormy night, her heightened consciousness of terror created something that would later be known as a novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.

‘Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion …’ Frankenstein’s monster and Frankenstein the book had both been born.’

A Year Without a Sun proved to be inspirational not only to poetic group of Romanticists who made up ghost stories for fun but also to J.M.W. Turner, famous landscape painter who studied the sky with a great flair. His painting shown above, Chichester Canal was inspired by the sky as it appeared in that infamous Summer Without a Sun. The painting depicts the Chichester Canal in Sussex and its brilliant, vivid colours were influenced by atmospheric ash from the previously mentioned volcano eruption.