The Essential Shelley

by G David Schwartz

part 1 of 2


Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822) was essentially a child. As we recall the stunts of his adolescence, pranks which gained him infamy among his peers, we must regard Shelley essentially childlike.

His first pamphlet, “The Necessity of Atheism” — a title as convincing as “The Necessity of Underwear” — was not accepted by any publisher. As a result, Shelley lined the shelves of his favorite bookstore with this, his first manifesto, when the owners had closed for vacation. We may wonder why Shelley had the keys to the store, if he was related to the proprietors, or if they were in collusion with the poet. These are moot and/or mute questions.

When the authorities confiscated the incendiary literature, Shelley sent the copies he had hidden away to every member of parliament, the King, and not a few innocent bystanders. This raises an entire spate of new questions to ponder.

First and foremost is the question: if no publisher would touch his unpublished pamphlet, where did the spare copies come from? One may also wonder what the Parliamentarians and King and bystanders did with the literature Shelley had sent them.

Shelley himself may well have pondered this very question. It is not unusual for poets to send their works somewhere. Generally they are looking for some kind of feedback, some confirmation of their abilities, skills, and possibilities. Freelance writers are little else than skillibilies potentia. Most of that phrase is Latin.

Indeed, many poets speak directly of their sending of material. Sir John Suckling, for example, wrote:

“I prithee send me back my heart,
Since I cannot have thine.
For if from thine thou wilt not part,
Why then shouldst thou have mine?”

Fitzhugh Ludlow has said, “While we send for the napkin the soup gets cold.”

Likewise, Robert Frost, in a fit of speculation on precisely this issue, had written:

“Our life runs down in sending up the clock.
The brook runs down in sending up our life.
The sun runs down in sending up the brook.
And there is something sending up the sun.”

Speaking of sending, one of Shelley’s early pranks was to paint a pair of his old brown shoes with red enamel and send them to a friend who, receiving something from the soon to be famous Percy Shelley, was delighted.

In return, the friend sent Shelley a picture of his wife which was, as we will note below, essentially a mistake. Shelley was essentially a connoisseur of wives. He had two of his own and several of his friends’. But I jump ahead.

One of Shelley’s early pleasures was sailing paper boats. He eventually became an expert at sailing real vessels, although as we know from the events surrounding his death, it is quite safer to sail the paper versions. Shelley was essentially a paper boat captain who wrote poetry and prose. How many paper boats might be seen sailing syllable by syllable through Shelley’s lyrics?

Essentially, Shelley’s poetry was spontaneous. His art was not precisely free association but associations which reverberated freely. His literary production was not wailing, spewing tarantulas as one might find in, say, the great poet Jack Kerouac. Rather, Shelley’s art was an indelible flooding of ideas. His was the high tide of poetic discourse; he was indeed a captain of paper.

William Hazlitt, who was a personal acquaintance of the poet, described Shelley as essentially having “a fire in his eye, a fever in his blood, a maggot in his brain, a hectic flutter in his speech.”

Shelley, in spite of this dubious description, might fundamentally be characterized as anal unretentive. As we saw above, he gave his pamphlet away, he gave his poems away, he bought beers for his friends without any expectation of return, and he loaned away his Alexandrian-like library until all that was left was a bookshelf.

In keeping with his unretentive nature, Shelley basically had a poor memory. As a result, he wrote his every thought in long-hand on paper.

Poor memory might also explain why he quite forgot he was married when attempting to win the heart of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, daughter of the proto-anarchist philosopher William Godwin, and herself author of the popular book and multiple-movie, Frankenstein (of which Shelley was the obvious prototype).

Mary has been described as fair-haired and pale, intelligent and overloaded, possessor of a good sense of humor, pleasing to look upon, and possessing panther-like movements. She was, at the time Shelley began sending her his poems, desirous of becoming a nurse. It was just her luck to become hooked up with this primarily sick man, my hero, the poet, Shelley.

Shelley was not — and this may become important later — the author of “Mary, Mary, quite contrary.” Nor was he the author of “Gilda, Gilda, give me my pillow,” nor “Cindy Lou, howdy do,” nor “Elaine, Elaine, you hurt my brain,” nor “Sister, sister, cure my blister,” nor any other Revolution nor Restoration songs. Shelley was basically a serious poet.

Percy Shelley, at nineteen years of age, was essentially living in poverty because his wealthy father had denied him access to the family pursey. His friends had essentially abandoned him, his university expelled him (wishing, in fact, to delete him), and his muse held him captive to the maniacal profession of writing delicious poems on scraps of paper, which he proceeded, unconscionably, to widdle into paper boats and set sinkingly afloat.

As a solution to his problems, Shelley designed to marry Harriet Westerbrook. Harriet, in addition to being poor, without mercy, and uneducated, at least had Shelley. At least for a while.

Shelley was primarily a father. Shelley’s first daughter, Ianthe, was born in June of 1813. She was the first of two children Shelley had with Harriet, not including one or two he had with Mary.

Who knows who else confirmed Shelley in his fatherhood? Although neither a seducer nor an adulterer according to this study, we do know he was expending abundant emotions, and who knows what else, with Cornelia Turner.

We do not know precisely why Shelley left Harriet. We do know she sang in the evening. We do not know whether or not she had a pleasant voice, nor whether this nightingale habit of hers was an efficacious cause of Shelley’s departure.

We do know that Shelley attempted to teach her Latin. We do not know if he attempted to do so when she was singing. We do know she eventually learned Latin, and we know that Shelley claimed, after he had left her for good, that he no longer understood her. We can only imagine how well she learned her lessons.

Shelley was later to write, “A system could not well have been devised more studiously hostile to human happiness than marriage.” In an absolutely identical thought, bordering on plagiarism, Ogden Nash had said:

“One would be in less danger
From the wiles of the stranger
If one’s own kin and kith
Were more fun to be with.”


Neither the beauty of Shelley’s verse nor the tragedy of his life are a fit case for humor. Imagine my surprise, then, to find that among his minor works Mark Twain had essayed a many-paged text entitled “In Defense of Harriet Shelley.” Imagine my surprise to learn that Mark Twain wrote minor works! Ostensibly a defense of the charge that Harriet Shelley “cheated” on Percy, and drove him from their home, Twain’s tractate is also a self-congratulatory epistle to his own wife that her husband had never cheated on her.

Twain’s defense actually concludes nine paragraphs into his paper when he says, “What is the use of hunting down and holding to bitter account people who are responsible for other people’s innocent acts?” Twain’s logic is as unimpeachable and as impeccable as his humor is uproarious.

Nevertheless, the author goes on for another 158 or so densely-argued paragraphs defending Mrs. Shelley (the first Mrs. Shelley, that is). It is true that five weeks into the marriage, Shelley’s former college roommate, former fellow annoyance to the dean, and soon to be former friend, made a pass at Harriet. He was a Hogg. Possibly he was related to the Ezra P. Hogg with whom Spinoza was in correspondence. One might also ask whether or not that matters.

As Twain rightly perceived, the entire question of Harriet Shelley’s attitude toward the whole affair is merely conjectural. It may not be relevant that she, shortly after their divorce, committed suicide. Twain is correct when he says Harriet never left a document telling whether she wanted “another woman... lavishing so much inflamed interest on her husband or not.”

In truth, does any woman desire her man be the type in whom other women find no interest? I think not, or else the values and priorities of society would be more in harmony with the ideals of harmony and value. I think rather the contrary is true: woman, knowing love will eventually cease, marry with nothing in mind except ploys toward retention of their particular man will make other woman envious and jealous. Men, in this theory, are like so much external make-up.

In an early poem, Shelley had written to his young wife:

“Harriet! let death all mortal ties dissolve,
But ours shall not be mortal.”

I believe this poem has suffered at the hands of an ecclesiastic editor. I need not bore the reader with my hypothesis of a Q document, a proto-Q, pseudo-Q and a curly-Q document. I believe Shelley had originally written “ours shall not be normal.”

How could their life possibly be normal? Shelley was essentially a poet. What more needs be said? Only this, that the same people who Twain suggested had destroyed every note and letter written by Harriet Shelley in her own defense must have altered this brief poem!

While condemnation of Harriet Shelley is grotesque, it may be the case that an essential defense of Shelley himself needs be rehearsed. In the first place, Harriet must have known about her husband’s promiscuity before their marriage. If it is to be objected that he was not running around until after their marriage, this is no excuse. A wife ought to know everything about her imaginary husband before they marry; but she ought to know it in a real way. If she does not, the potential for sheer surprise is over-widening. Prior to their marriage, for example, Shelley was an outspoken proponent of what masqueraded under the name “free love” (perhaps this was why atheism was necessary).

Shelley was not like most men in merely believing the outlandish principles he professed. He went further than most by professing many outlandish principles.

Shelley also admired William Goodwin, the political anarchist who later, possibly as a result of his anarchistic practices, turned out to be the father of Mary Wollstonecraft Goodwin.

Finally, and again, Shelley was a poet. When one marries a poet one not only gets what one deserves, but one ought to convince oneself that one deserves what one obtains. Of course, there is a sense in which one gets more than one whenever one wins a poet.

We do not know when Shelley’s attention turned from meeting and corresponding with William Goodwin to his uncorrespondable behavior with his daughter Mary. Perhaps when he first saw William Godwin and Mary, and compared them.

We do not know what poems Shelley sent Mary through the mail. We do know that in an old and famous paper Francis Thompson said:

“When he found Mary Shelley wanting, he seems essentially to have fallen into the mistake of Wordsworth, who complained in a charming piece of unreasonableness, that his wife’s love, which had been a fountain, was now only a well.”

The reader should note that correct English would have had Mr. Thompson say, “When he found Mary not yet a Shelley...” If so, it does not seem unreasonable to think the following lines were penned with Mary in mind:

“Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit!”

This is the kind of stuff Shelley wrote. Again:

“Rarely, rarely, comest thou,
Spirit of Delight.”

Really? “Rarely,” twice! Nevertheless, it was W.B. Yeats, not Shelley, who wrote:

“I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

Finally, consider the following as if written with Mary merrily in mind:

“Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know.
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.”

Perhaps the line which speaks about his “listening now” refers to Mary’s disinclination to write Shelley letters or poems in return. If she indeed sent him nothing, we may assume the following were also not sent: no comments, no criticisms, no other-generated poetry, no references, no pictures or drawings, no encouragement, no regards, no request that he cease this nonsense. No nothing.

This fanciful relationship, or promise of an atypical relationship must have confused him. He had heard Mary say that “all men are alike,” but he knew this was not true, and he knew he could prove it.

Once Shelley penned the following thought to himself: “I suppose her being consistently too busy to react to my poems is her way of not encouraging me, or not leading me on, possibly even ignoring me. In doing so, she does not realize how she torments me, how she all the more fascinated me, how she encourages me to even greater poems.” Shelley devised four possibilities, and jotted them on paper:

  1. To coldly cease his meandering, and never explain anything about the matter to anyone, ever;

  2. To slowly back away from his jealously mailed poems until the situation was regarded by all as humorous, and therefore forgettable;

  3. To continue the way he was going, because he enjoyed the thought that his poems might bring her happiness;

  4. To advance his advancements, and damn the casual world.

He looked over his words, nodded thoughtfully and, crumbling the paper into a tight ball, threw it in the street. He thought: too course, too direct, too brisk, too unrhythmic. If I continue subtle and vague, allow every reader from now to remote history to think me a comic or a fool, then I’ll continue to speak my mind and hide my face.

Nevertheless, he did not want to offend her. He was quite surprised, then, when Mary happened to be out walking and he blurted out, “Will you meet me for coffee tonight? Tell me where and what time. I’ll be there.”

Mary, more curious than flirtatious, said she had intentions, needs, desires, a novel in the works, and wants of her own. One year later they were husband and wife, for Shelley was essentially the marrying type.

From then on, Mary carried a chap-book in which she collected the autographs of all the famous and near-famous people who visited their home. It is not known whether Hogg was ever invited. On the first page of the book, Shelley himself had written, “You win!” and on the last page he had penned the word “...eternity.”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by G. David Schwartz

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