On this day in 1792, the great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was born. And he is quite good. His lyrical poetry is about as good as one will find. But I’m not that interested in it. The whole of Romantic poetry has become a cliche, and it is hard to read it without its historical baggage. As early as 1811, Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility lampooned the Romantic sensibility as affected and silly with the characters Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby. None of this is to say that Shelley was affected and silly.
In fact, the Romantics tended to be political radicals, and Shelley was no exception. To give you some idea, I remember the conservative writer Paul Johnson going after Shelley with his usual glee in Intellectuals. The chapter on Shelley was titled, “Shelley, or the Heartlessness of Ideas.” I think that is a little play on the full title of Frankenstein. But having read much of Johnson over the years, I’ve come to think of him as one of the most intellectually dishonest historians of the 20th century. He has a political ax to grind, and boy does he grind it. It reminds me, sadly, of some of my own early writing. But in my defense, no one ever mistook my books for history. In Modern Times (and elsewhere), Johnson misrepresents and diminishes imperialism. Like most of what he wrote, it was pure apologia masquerading as history. So the fact that Johnson took the time in his snark-fest (the chapter on Tolstoy is “God’s Elder Brother”), indicates that Shelley was liberal enough to warrant Johnson’s concern that modern readers might like him.
And what were Shelley’s offenses? (Not what Johnson wrote about; he was only interested in Shelley’s personal life; Johnson is a typical conservative Christian in his intense interest in other people’s sex lives.) Shelley’s longest work of prose was, A Philosophical View of Reform. And in it he argues for the elimination of a standing army; religious equality; and judicial reform. For conservative Americans who deify the founding fathers, Shelley’s ideas should be very appealing. He was also for a balanced budget, but that was a big concern at that time among liberals. See Mark Blyth’s excellent Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea for more on that. (My discussion of the book: History of Austerity.)
But Johnson isn’t the only one who has had a problem with Shelley. In general, later generations tried to neuter him and turn him into that nice young man who wrote about the joys of nature and died young by drowning. This is one reason why Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is probably the best single example of what the Romantics were up to. They were very interested in serious ideas that even most people today don’t think about. (In the defense of modern people: they are mostly too busy working three part-time jobs.) But lest I be accused of completely slighting Shelley’s excellent poetry, here are eight lines that condense the scores of books Proust would eventually write:
Vibrates in the memory;
Odors, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the beloved’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.
Happy birthday Percy Bysshe Shelley!