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Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himselfby Ann Wroe
Synopses & Reviews
Chapter 1: Substance
In later life, Charles MacFarlane recalled the moment more or less exactly. He was standing in the Royal Bourbon Museum in Naples in February 1819, admiring a statue assumed to be of Agrippina, when someone at his shoulder murmured words. The remark had something to do with the statue's gracefulness, little enough in itself, though it seemed ‘that sort of commonplace which is not heard from the vulgar'. MacFarlane remembered rather the voice, soft and strangely touching. The speaker was a gentleman of twenty-five or twenty-six, English, thin, with a delicate and negligent, even wild, appearance. They had not been introduced.
Falling in together, they wandered from statue to statue for the rest of the afternoon. His new escort talked avidly of Beauty, Justice, the Venus di Medici (‘all over a goddess '), love of the Ideal and the astonishments of modern archaeology. At the end he shook MacFarlane’s hand, thanked him heartily, and disappeared. MacFarlane realised that he still had no idea who his ‘unknown friend' had been. No name had been proffered, no visiting card. Instead he was left with fragments of deep thought, like leaves from a private notebook.
His mysterious companion had a past. You could learn from his acquaintances that he was Percy Bysshe Shelley, born at Field Place, Horsham, Sussex, in 1792, the first son of Timothy Shelley, landowner, sometime MP for New Shoreham and, since 1815, a baronet.The family was large: Shelley had four younger sisters and a brother 14 years his junior. He had been schooled at Syon House Academy and Eton, where he excelled in Latin composition; and at University College, Oxford, where after one term, in March 1811, he had been expelled with his best friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, for writing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. He had eloped the next August, aged nineteen, with a schoolgirl of sixteen, Harriet Westbrook; and then, that marriage having failed, had run off in 1814 with the almost-as-young Mary Godwin, daughter of William Godwin, the philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, a champion of the rights of women. With Mary and her sixteen-year-old step-half-sister, Jane (later Claire) Clairmont, he had journeyed for six weeks through France and Germany in a sort of méeacute;nage àagrave; trois, and had set up a household with the girls on returning. As a result of this extraordinary behaviour his father had severed all connection with him, leaving Shelley for a time almost destitute; and despite his eventual marriage to Mary Godwin, the Lord Chancellor in 1817 had deprived him, on the double grounds of immorality and atheism, of the two infant children of his first marriage.
From boyhood he had written poems, as well as political tracts and the odd romantic novel. According to taste these were tedious, blasphemous or immoral, though a few saw beauty and genius in them. For a while, fearing that he had Jacobin tendencies and meant to revolutionise England in the style seen so recently in France, the government watched him, but most of his writings proved too obscure to be subversive. Disheartened and discredited, and convinced (for he had never retracted either his atheism or his singular notions of morality) that his two children by Mary Godwin would also be taken from him, he had left England in March 1818 for Italy. And there he seemed lik
In an intimate portrait of one of the world's foremost poets, the author of Pontius Pilate traces the inner journey of an artist struggling to create and escape, addressing Shelley's personal quest to understand himself, his purpose, and his spiritual and aesthetic vision. Reprint.
From Ann Wroe, a biographer of the first rank, comes a startlingly original look at one of the greatest poets in the Western tradition.
Being Shelley aims to turn the poet's life inside out: rather than tracing the external events of his life, she tracks the inner journey of a spirit struggling to create. In her quest to understand the radically unconventional Shelley, Wroe pursues the questions that consumed the poet himself. Shelley sought to free and empower the entire human race; his revolution was meant to shatter illusions, shock men and women with new visions, find true love and liberty—and take everyone with him. Now, for the first time, this passionate quest is put at the center of his life. The result is a Shelley who has never been seen in biography before.
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