Christopher Hitchens explores the man whose work ranged from the nature-loving verses of To a Skylark to poetry and prose often considered too incendiary to be published in his own lifetime
Our perhaps forgivable tendency to group the Romantic tribe of early 19th-century poets under a single collective title is a disservice both to history and to literature. Byron opened his Don Juan with a sparkling attack on the insipidity of those he termed – for fairly obvious reasons – "the Lakers", and scorned those who haunted Keswick as if it were some daunting wilderness. "There is a narrowness in such a notion," he wrote, "which makes me wish you'd change your lakes for ocean."
Percy Bysshe Shelley, who qualified as a Romantic by the exacting test of expiring a month before his 30th birthday, became oceanic by dying in a tempest on the Mediterranean, had Byron as a mourner at his funeral pyre, and was in any case partly exempted from the latter's contempt by the otherwise extremely stormy career that he pursued. He continues to lead a sort of double-life in our literature, first as the author of such nature-loving verses as To a Skylark and second as a revolutionary whose work in poetry and prose was often considered too incendiary to be published in his own lifetime.
It might be slightly unfair to say, as does Richard Holmes in his magnificent biography, that parts of Shelley's Hymn To Intellectual Beauty and The Revolt of Islam suffer from a "thin, high-pitched egotism". It's true that the terrible bullying he endured in his schooldays, and his later unjust expulsion from University College, Oxford, gave him a keen sense of persecution and imparted a certain quality of the over-wrought to his work. For that matter, it is true that reading him in large doses can cause a slight weariness with the over-use of certain tropes (birds soar, trumpets blast, waves surge and break, storms howl and drive, volcanoes erupt).
But this energy and emotion was most often mobilised not for the self, but in order to enlarge the bounds of poetry and to put the poet himself at the service of the generous cause of humanity. A paragraph from his (again posthumously published) essay In Defence of Poetry culminates in what may be his single best-known phrase:
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Inherent in this, perhaps, is a claim to membership in an elect or an occult nobility, and it does seem that Shelley was fascinated by the so-called Illuminists, a sort of Jacobin freemasonry devoted to the overthrow of religion, family and private property.
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