Shelley by John Addington Symonds

Consider these elements. A young, rich and gifted man is obsessed with revolutionary idealism. He attends prestigious schools and the most prestigious university but is expelled from the latter because of his outrageous outspoken views, opinions he chose to publish in pamphlets. He is disowned by his family, runs away with his girlfriend, gets into drugs and devote his time to writing poetry that no one else professes to understand. He gets bored with his wife, has a fling with a teenager and sets off with her to travel, apparently none too troubled by leaving his wife and children to their own devices. Soon afterwards, his estranged wife kills herself. He takes more drugs, regularly, wanders around on his travels with his new wife, gets in with a heavy crowd of fellow travellers, falls foul of authority and does stupid things.

He continues to write, but generally has to publish his work at his own expense, because others still find it baffling. He seems to be obsessed with a particular pastime, a practice that, for him, is positively dangerous and is eventually killed on an escapade where he pursues this risky activity, has an accident and dies, aged very young. His friends recover his body and they ritually burn it, but the heart seems to survive its roasting and is retrieved.

This is no 1960s hippie, no millennial millionaire millionaire’s misguided, spoilt son. This is Percy Bysshe Shelly, the English poet, in the first two decades of the 19th century. And reading J.A. Symond’s 1878 biography, with its copious quotes from the Romantic poet’s work, we view a portrait of the artist as a young man. He stayed forever the young man because he died well before he ever became old. But he was also young because he never seemed to shake off the infant’s need for attention, for the kind of special treatment that demanded other’s accommodate his whims whilst he, himself, did not seem to notice that others might need some of the same. He was the artist because his entire life seems to have been a pursuit to express a platonic essence of life and experience, a life he seemed to reject, or at least take for granted, an experience he clouded with narcotics.

A 21st-century visit to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s biography might persuade the reader to reject the whole as merely the pranks of a headstrong, spoiled sick boy, who was also rich boy. But this 19th century biography offers a more contemporary view of this great life than one clouded by more recent assumptions or interpretations about the individual and his era. It enables us to view Shelley’s undoubted genius more in the context of how it was received in its own time and, though it cannot be the last word on the great poet, it can offer interesting and arresting perspectives.

What is doubly interesting about this work is that it’s author, John Addington Symonds, was himself a rebel in his own time, apart from society because of his homosexuality. And strangely, the author was buried in Rome, not far from the grave where Shelley’s ashes were interred. Poetry, it seems, is alive and well.

Source by Philip Spires

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