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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

REMEMBERING SHELLEY: "Tea(r)s, Where small talk dies in agonies”

Percy Bysshe Shelley (4 August 1792 – 8 July 1822; pronounced /ˈpɜrsi ˈbɪʃ ˈʃɛli// is an unforgettable name in the history of humanity. He is one of the inspiring English Romantic poets and a finest lyricist in the English language. Shelley is always remembered with Wordsworth, John Keats and Lord Byron. The novelist Mary Shelley was his second wife.

Shelley's life was very unconventional. A very sensitive child he was and he often opposed class differences in society, spoke against social evils and advocated the concept of freedom which caused him to be victimised even from the school days itself. It would suffice to say that 'Shelley Baiting' became a game for the bullies of the school who tortured this boy of progressive ideals. An essay on atheism written by him became so controversial that the university terminated his studentship and it is interesting to note that later the same university came forward to prescribe the essay for study. It is said that the government used to send spies after him and promoted a feeling of resentment against him for questioning the established and orthodox beliefs. Not surprisingly, Shelley lived a life which he describes as 'I fall upon the thorns of life and I bleed'. This revolutionary poet had a tragic death by drowning at the age of thirty but by that time he had already written enough to disturb the world out of its ugly complacence. One would be shocked to understand that even some of his published works were suppressed to the extend that around the time of his death he had about 50 readers as his audience and could make nothing more than 40 pounds from his writings. His body was missing for some days and was found cast ashore holding a book of poems by Keats close to his heart in a tight embrace.

Known to the readers of English literature for his works like Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind, and To a Skylark, Shelley has also authored long visionary poems like Alastor, Adonaïs (a lament on Keats), and The Revolt of Islam. He has also authored dramatic plays.

Shelley became a figure of inspiration to not only poets but people who were otherwise creative and those included Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, Upton Sinclair, Isadora Duncan, and Jiddu Krishnamurti ("Shelley is as sacred as the Bible.") Henry David Thoreau's civil disobedience and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's passive resistance were influenced and inspired by Shelley's nonviolence in protest and political action.

How Shelley inspires people can be sensed from these words taken from I became acquainted with Shelley in 1944. At the time I was eighteen years of age and a Republican remand prisoner in Belfast jail. I liked poetry and, searching for something readable in the prison library—a cupboard which they opened twice weekly to the accompaniment of bawling screws, who could see no justification for delay in lifting one of the books—I found a treasure: The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Eventually I got my own copy of Shelley and, over many, many years, I have prized it as the first real socialist literature I ever read. It is, I think, fitting that, on the bi-centenary of his birth, an appreciation of his life's work should appear in a socialist journal.

Poets, with their abstract notions of freedom and justice, can momentarily help a prisoner transcend the ignominy and degradation that the prison system imposes. But Shelley's ideas of freedom and justice were no way abstract; his was no mere solace for the soul. Yes, there were the odes To The West Wind, To A Skylark, To A Cloud; beautiful word music in the classical tradition of English metrical composition.

But, more importantly, there was the wisdom that stripped to its essential ugliness a system of society that dissipates, wastes and destroys wealth in order to make its rich richer while mentally and physically impoverishing the producers of that wealth. There was the vision of a new world, a world of dignity and equality where cash would not be the measure of human need. And there was the indignation, the anguish, even the pain—sometimes written in a spontaneity of anger that defied the discipline of well-marshalled prosody. Here was a text book of revolutionary thought that showed the futility of the cause for which I was imprisoned and extended my vision beyond the empty rhetoric of nationalism.

During his lifetime Shelley had come to Ireland to protest at the misery of the peasantry. Some Irish nationalists have equated this with sympathy for Irish nationalism but Shelley, whose constituency was the toiling masses everywhere, did not subscribe to the myth that the English working class were the beneficiaries of English imperialism. Thus, after hearing of the Peterloo Massacre at Manchester in 1819, Shelley wrote the Masque of Anarchy in which he describes the contemporary condition of the working class in England:

Asses, swine have litter spread

And with fitting food are fed;

All things have a home but one -

Thou, Oh Englishman, hast none!

This is Slavery—savage men, Or wild beasts within a den Would endure not as ye do—But such ills they never knew.

This poem, consisting of some ninety one short stanzas of varying lengths was written at Leghorn in Italy. According to his wife, Mary, when Shelley heard how the military murderers had waded into a peaceful reform protest "it… aroused in him violent emotions of indignation and compassion". According to some purists, that anger adversely affected the quality of the poem.

Whatever its poetic qualities, Shelley's Masque of Anarchy must rank, from a working—class standpoint, as the most chdactic of English poetical works. His verse castigates every rotten facet of capitalism: its law, its judiciary, its priests, its parasite class and the foulness of its oppression. His words bear the reader along the path of anger and frustration seeking, it would seem, retribution, revenge. But Shelley, in an age when violence was the tool of revolution, was too deeply perceptive of the need for democratic action if the revolution which he craved was to realise his vision. True, he makes us angry, makes us loathe this evil that murders people for profit but, on the crest of our anger, he stops us:

Then it is to feel revenge

Fiercely thirsting to exchange

Blood for blood -

and wrong for wrong -

Do not thus when ye are strong.

What then? What should we do when "we are strong"? Shelley, the democratic socialist says we should use the unassaila- ble power of our numbers. Poetically, he says we should think… decide:

Stand ye calm and resolute,

Like a forest, close and mute,

With folded arms and looks which are

Weapons of unvanquished war.

(… )

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you

Ye are many—they are few.

In 1888 Marx's daughter, Eleanor, and her partner, Edward Aveling published an appreciation of Shelley under the title Shelley's Socialisrn. The justification for their assumption is abundant throughout Shelley's poems and prose writings. In one of his notes to Queen Mab, Shelley quotes Godwin with approval: "there is no real wealth but the labour of man".

Prometheus Unbound, The Masque of Anarchy, Queen Mab, The Ode to Liberty, these, with his prose writings, his prologues, his sonnets and his songs chronicle the misery of the peasant and the wage slave but always, there is the optimism of the true revolutionary; the clarity of vision, as here in Prometheus Unbound, of a future where:

The Loathsome mask has fallen the man remains

Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man

Equal, unclassed, tribless and nationless,

Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king,

Over himself, just, gentle, wise.

Queen Mab is a vision of the past, present and future of mankind. In it Shelley attacks kings, war, commerce and, in particular, priests and religion. In fact the criticism of christianity, in the poem as well as in prose notes attached to it was so hard-hitting that when it was republished in the 1820s the publisher was sent to prison for blasphemy. Queen Mab became the work that publishers used in defiance of the restrictive press laws of the time. Each time they were convicted of blasphemy. But as a result Queen Mab, and thus Godwin's social ideas, came to be widely read in Chartist and radical circless.

In this passage from Queen Mab he criticises the way money contaminates all human relationships:

All things are sold: the very light of Heaven Is venal;

Earth's unsparing gifts of love,

The smallest and most despicable things

That lurk in the abysses of the deep,

All objects of our life, even life itself,

And the poor pittance which the laws allow

Of liberty, the fellowship of man,

Those duties which his heart of human love

Should urge him to perform instinctively,

Are bought and sold as in a public mart

Of undisguising selfishness, that sets

On each its price, the stamp-mark of her reign.

He saw money, "paper coin—that forgery of the title deeds", as capitalism's instrument of theft; he saw slavery as a natural result of property society; he saw the poverty and alienation of the masses and, especially, did he decry the intellectual poverty and deception which capitalism inflicted on its wage slaves.

In part V of Queen Mab Shelley attacks commerce which he sees as a product of selfishness in the sense of people wanting to sell their surplus for money rather than give it to others to satisfy their needs:

Commerce! Beneath whose poison-breathing shade

No solitary virtue dares to spring,

But Poverty and Wealth with equal hand

Scatter their withering curses, and unfold

The doors of premature and violent death,

To pining famine and full-fed disease,

To all that shares the lot of human life,

Which poisoned, body and soul, scarce drags

the chain,

That lengthens as it goes and clanks behind.

It is quite clear that Shelley was expressing Godwin's idea that, in a just society, producers would give away their surplus produce free rather than sell it for money. Hence his opening description of commerce as "the venal interchange of all that human art or nature yield; which wealth should purchase not, but want demand, and natural kindness hasten to supply". When he later describes what will happen when people are motivated by the "consciousness of good" he naturally states that they will have no need of "mediative signs of selfishness"—of money—and that "every transfer of the earth's natural gifts shall be a commerce of good words and works".

This commerce of sincerest virtue needs

No mediative signs of selfishness,

No jealous intercourse of wretched gain,

No balancings of prudence, cold and long;

In just and equal measure all is weighed, One scale contains the sum of human weal, And one, the good man's heart.

Part V of Queen Mab ends as follows:

But hoary-headed Selfishness has felt

Its death-blow, and is tottering to the grave:

A brighter morn awaits the human day, When every transfer of earth's natural gifts Shall be a commerce of good words and works;

When poverty and wealth, the thirst of fame,

The fear of infamy, disease and woe,

War with its million horrors, and fierce hell Shall live but in the memory of Time,

Who, like a penitent libertine, shall start,

Look back, and shudder at his younger years.

In one sense this argument as to whether or not Godwin and Shelley were socialists is anachronistic since the modern idea of socialism, as the solution to the problems of a majority wage-working class within a capitalist industrial society, had not yet come into being. This is partly why in this article we have used the word "communist" rather than "socialist" to describe the moneyless equal society advocated by critics of the essentially agrarian class society that existed before industrial capitalism developed. It was of course the low level of development of the means of production that accounts for the fruga1, even Spartan, character which the pre-industrial communists were obliged to give to the egalitarian society they advocated, but it still remains true that people like (in England) More, Winstanley and Godwin and Shelley and (in France) Morelly, Babeuf and Buonarotti were forerunners of the socialist industrial society of abundance that we modern socialists now advocate.

DO NOT MISS THIS LETTER (from for it moves you with the fellow feeling and the interest to share the agony of one spout of life by the other:

Recipient: Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), poet, atheist, nobleman and exile, was an early champion of Keats's work. They were introduced by Leigh Hunt, whose politics were already alienating Keats. Interestingly, Shelley was critical of Hunt's influence upon Keats's work; he believed Keats to be a natural talent led astray by mannerisms and affectation.

Upon learning of Keats's illness, Shelley graciously asked him to stay with his family in Italy. The poet politely refused. Shelley wrote the beautiful elegy Adonais upon Keats's death. The next year, Shelley himself drowned; a volume of Keats's poetry was found in his pocket.

I think Shelley's opinion can best be described in his own words, from a letter he wrote to Marianne Hunt on 29 October 1820 regarding Keats's latest work, Hyperion:

'Keats' new volume has arrived to us, & the fragment called Hyperion promises for him that he is destined to become one of the first writers of the age. - His other things are imperfect enough.... Where is Keats now? I am anxiously expecting him in Italy where I shall take care to bestow every possible attention on him. I consider his a most valuable life, & I am deeply interested in his safety. I intend to be the physician both of his body & his soul, to keep the one warm & to teach the other Greek & Spanish. I am aware indeed that I am nourishing a rival who will far surpass me and this is an additional motive & will be an added pleasure.'

Introduction: This interesting letter is a reply to Shelley's literary advice and kind offer of his home in Italy for Keats's recuperation.

August 16th

My dear Shelley,

I am very much gratified that you, in a foreign country, and with a mind almost over occupied, should write to me in the strain of the Letter beside me. If I do not take advantage of your invitation it will be prevented by a circumstance I have very much at heart to prophesy - There is no doubt that an english winter would put an end to me, and do so in a lingering hateful manner, therefore I must either voyage or journey to Italy as a soldier marches up to a battery. My nerves at present are the worst part of me, yet they feel soothed when I think that come what extreme may, I shall not be destined to remain in one spot long enough to take a hatred of any four particular bed-posts. I am glad you take any pleasure in my poor Poem; - which I would willingly take the trouble to unwrite, if possible, did I care so much as I have done about Reputation. I received a copy of the Cenci, as from yourself from Hunt. There is only one part of it I am judge of; the Poetry, and dramatic effect, which by many spirits nowadays is considered the mammon. A modern work it is said must have a purpose, which may be the God - an artist must serve Mammon - he must have "self concentration" selfishness perhaps. You I am sure will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist, and 'load every rift' of your subject with ore. The thought of such discipline must fall like cold chains upon you, who perhaps never sat with your wings furl'd for six Months together. And is not this extraordina[r]y talk for the writer of Endymion? whose mind was like a pack of scattered cards - I am pick'd up and sorted to a pip. My Imagination is a Monastry and I am its Monk - you must explain my metap [for metaphysics] to yourself. I am in expectation of Prometheus every day. Could I have my own wish for its interest effected you would have it still in manuscript - or be but now putting an end to the second act. I remember you advising me not to publish my first-blights, on Hampstead heath - I am returning advice upon your hands. Most of the Poems in the volume I send you have been written above two years, and would never have been publish'd but from a hope of gain; so you see I am inclined enough to take your advice now. I must exp[r]ess once more my deep sense of your kindness, adding my sincere thanks and respects for Mrs Shelley. In the hope of soon seeing you (I) remain

most sincerely yours,
John Keats

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