Thursday, 21 May 2009
The wealth ye find another keeps
This is fast becoming a Richard Holmes appreciation blog - but hey, there could be worse things.
This is my battered copy of Shelley: The Pursuit. What can I say about it? It is simply one of the best books - of any kind - I've ever read, plain and simple.
Shelley's life has the narrative arc of fiction. Edited down it can read like a Romantic novel (and a melodramatic one at that) rather than biography. But the great strength of Richard Holmes is the fact that he doesn't need to slim his subject down - he can pack a book with fascinating detail and still have this incredible page-turning flow.
I came to Shelley through Mary Woolstencraft Shelley's Frankenstein, not through his poetry. I read the book and saw the James Whale movies. In Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester plays both Mary and the bride. I read about the book's conception in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva (referred to in that movie) rented by the mad, bad and dangerous to know Lord Byron and the ghost story competition there in the summer of 1816 between Byron, Shelley, John Polidori and the nineteen year-old Mary.
I read Anne Edwards Haunted Summer, a novelisation of the event. I read Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldis in which a split in fabric of space and time sees both the writing of the book and the action of the book happening side by side; a book that was turned into a huge stuffed turkey of a movie by Roger Corman. Gradually - like many people - I just became a little obsessed with the people involved.
Richard Holmes evokes that night in the Villa Diodati wonderfully, but it is just one of a hundred extraordinary incidents in Percy Bysshe Shelley's life. He was sent down from Oxford for writing an atheist tract, his radical politics meant he was spied on by the government, he deserted his pregnant wife Harriet (who subsequently drowned herself in the Serpentine) and took off with Mary (Godwin as she was then) and her infuriatingly fascinating half-sister Claire Claremont, wandering around Europe in the company of the notorious Lord Byron. Shelley and Byron had a schooner built though Shelley could not swim (refusing lessons from that famous swimmer, Byron) and he drowned aged thirty in a storm in the Gulf of Spezia. His body was burned on the beach and his heart plucked from the funeral pyre to be kept by Mary ever after.
He also found time to write some rather good poetry.
Like Coleridge, Shelley could be very bad at being a man. But it says a lot about Holmes' biography that you still care about him, for all that. The account of Shelley's last days has haunted me ever since. Oh and in case you find it hard to imagine a poet like Shelley ever writing anything so radical he would be seen as a security risk, check out the opening verse from To The Men of England. . .
Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?
It goes on to say. . .
The seed ye sow another reaps;
The wealth ye find another keeps;
The robes ye weave another wears;
The arms ye forge another bears.
Sow seed, -- but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth, -- let no imposter heap;
Weave robes, -- let not the idle wear;
Forge arms, in your defence to bear
That still sounds pretty radical to me. My guess is that were he alive, he'd still be attracting the attentions of government spies.