The beautiful boy

IssueOctober 2005
Comment by Jeff Cloves

I've always liked Shelley's life: its passion, poetry and politics.

When he went to Oxford he and his friend Hogg immediately set about writing a pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism. Shelley noted that "my mother fancies me on the High Road to Pandemonium" and she was proved right. Their pamphlet duly set the Master of their university college by his devout ears and he summarily expelled the pair of them. Thus, at age 19,Percy Bysshe Shelley's life was launched upon the stormy seaw hich cruelly and prematurely drowned him when he was barely 40.

A revolutionary romantic

It's a Penguin paperback which has reminded me of all this, for Claire Tomalin's Young Bysshe (Pocket Penguin 2005, £1.50)--which gives account of the first 22 years of Shelley's life--is a sparky introduction to the drowned romantic. In fact, not aromantic at all--as he was/is popularly perceived--but a revolutionary, and her essay brings him as wonderfully to life as does Richard Holmes's magnificent biography Shelley: The Pursuit (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1974).

Decidedly a "crat"

At 19, however , Shelley was not yet launched as a poet but waswriting political and philosophic tracts. In these he had already laid out the beliefs which were to strengthen throughout his brief life and from which he never deviated and backed down: "I have reasoned and my reason has brought me on this subject [politics] to the end of my enquiries. I am no aristocrat, nor `crat' at all, but vehemently long for the time when men may dare to live in accordance with Nature and Reason--in consequence, with Virtue, to which I firmly believe that Religion and its establishments, Polity and its establishments, are the formidable though destructible barriers."

In truth, Shelley was decidedly aristocratic in his disregard for bills, and careless--to put it at its kindest--in his treatment of his lovers.

Politics and morality

Despite his hatred of marriage, he married twice, and his first wife, poor Harriet Westbrook, drowned herself in the Serpentine. Shelley had abandoned her for Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter, Mary Godwin, and the sun went out for her.

It shone for others though and throughout his life he was irresistible to men and women alike. But in 1811 he was able to write in his own Declaration of Rights: "No man has a right to do an evil thing that good may come... Expediency is inadmissible in morals. Politics are only sound when conducted on principles of morality...."

His own principles of morality embraced free love, atheism, pacifism, passive resistance and vegetarianism--"all who knew him agree that he lived largely on bread, raisins, honey, fruit and tea and was quite regardless of meal times"--and his great political poems, Queen Mab and the Masque of Anarchy, which led to his exile, resonate yet. Claire Tomalin conveys the anarchy of Shelley's youth beautifully and quotes Hogg's description of his room at Oxford as a sorcerer's cave: "Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments, clothes, pistols, linen, crockery, ammunition, and phials innumerable, with money, stockings, prints, crucibles, bags, and boxes were scattered on the floor and in every place... The tables, and especially the carpet, were already stained with large spots of various hues, which frequently proclaimed the agency of fire."

An inspiration

Shelley's loves, elopements, domestic arrangements and social experimentation can be seen as a forever evolving travelling commune. No wonder Richard Holmes saw him as afigure who anticipated the 60s and who was symbolically reborn when the Events of May in Paris 1968 echoed his ideals and aspirations. He remains an inspiration now--as ever.

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