Thursday, October 20, 2016

Songs consecrate to truth and liberty - Shelley's first book of poems

Another bicentennial landmark: Alastor; or The Spirit of Solitude: and Other Poems (1816) by Percy Bysshe Shelley, his first book of poems, although hardly his first book.  His first good book; his first great poems; at the time, barely noticed, badly reviewed and completely misunderstood.

I had not read the book as such until a few minutes ago.  I had trusted the editors of my selected Shelley, the Norton Critical Edition Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, which includes the 700-line “Alastor” and the lyrics “Stanzas. – April, 1814,” “Mutability,” and “To Wordsworth.”  I don’t like Shelley that much.  Before writing this note, though, why not glance at a facsimile of the original, and thus I discover that two of the poems, including the only other long one, are chunks of Queen Mab (1813), reworked, but still, I've read it, one is a worthless political poem about Napoleon, and the whole thing could easily be published in forty pages – so just read it – which I did.

Thus I discover “Sonnet. From the Italian of Dante,” a translation that I would have assumed was an imitation, a parody, if I didn’t know otherwise:

Guido, I would that Lappo, thou, and I,
Led by some strong enchantment, might ascend
A magic ship, whose charmed sails should fly
With winds at will where’er our thoughts might wend,
And that no change, nor any evil chance,
Should mar our joyous voyage…

Dante then wishes that their lady friends were also with them on the magic ship.  It is the emphasis on the “magic ship” that is perfectly Shelleyan – Rossetti’s version sounds totally different – the great dream of the Shelley whose great non-intellectual hobby was folding paper boats, setting them aflame, and launching them onto Italian lakes.  Plus, I know, the irony, the lines are about what eventually killed him.

I didn’t notice anything else this good in the book, but I just read it, so who knows what I missed.

“Alastor” is about a poet – The Poet – who rejects real beauty for ideal beauty, a real woman for a dream girl, community for solitude, and likely a number of other oppositions, and it kills him.  As Shelley writes in his Preface,

He seeks in vain for a prototype of his conception.  Blasted by his disappointment, he descends to an untimely grave.

I enjoy the poem mostly for its wild landscapes, the scenes of the poet’s fruitless search:

The waves arose.  Higher and higher still
Their fierce necks writhed beneath the tempest’s scourge
Like serpents struggling in a vulture’s grasp.

“To Wordsworth” is a sonnet as literary criticism, or maybe just literary complaint, one we have all expressed in less poetic form at some point.  You used to be so great – how sad that your new book (in this case, The Excursion (1814)), the one other people are saying is so good, stinks so badly.

In honored poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty, -
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.

Although Shelley’s case reminds me that there are other ways to cease to be, and other ways to grieve for a poet.


  1. I don't much like Shelley either, except when he's very short and compressed-- otherwise I get bored.

    The Mask of Anarchy begins amazingly, tight and angry, and then the good guys start speaking and it becomes dull.

  2. Yes, I see what you mean (I had completely forgotten "The Mask of Anarchy," so I had to refresh myself). It is not generally much fun to hear Shelley declaim.

  3. Though John Vanderslice's "Pale Horse"--a compressed version of "The Mask of Anarchy"--is pretty darned good.

  4. I'd never seen that, thanks! You're right, the compression really works. Though why he makes it "unknowable" number rather than "unvanquishable" number is not clear to me.