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Seeing Shelley Plain

ISSUE:  Spring 1941

Shelley. By Newman Ivey White. Two volumes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $12.50.

The superiority of Newman Ivey White’s monumental biography of Shelley to previous studies of the poet is undeniable, and the Shelley who emerges is markedly different from the popular conception of him. We do not find the “beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” Instead we see a highly emotional, supersensitive being with the unwavering purpose of reforming the world. Odd, indeed, he was, and in his youth he was believed to be insane. Erratic conduct marked his whole life. For one who was so ingenuously devoted to humanity he could be amazingly selfish and blind. But, as this book clearly shows, Shelley learned consideration for others and he learned, too, that the emancipation of mankind lay far in the future and could arrive only after untold suffering and self-sacrifice. Thus the youthful reformer, distributing pamphlets to the stricken Irish, came to be the far-seeing author of “Prometheus Unbound” and “Hellas.”

Professor White’s book is not only readable but it also satisfies fully the demands of scholarship, Shelley’s life is accurately, definitively, and objectively related. The poet’s genealogy, the environment from which he came, and the persons with whom he associated are discussed in detail. The book is rich in background. Eton and Oxford in Shelley’s day and the Irish troubles are fully described, and such matters as the Neapolitan and Grecian revolutions are touched upon. The author gives detailed examinations of the reception of Shelley’s writings, and he explains clearly both the approval and condemnation of them. He reviews Shelley’s posthumous reputation and shows why the Victorians, who in general could have had but little sympathy with the revolutionary doctrines of the poet, were as eulogistic as the leading radicals from Robert Owen onward. The work is rounded out with bibliographies, annotations, an exhaustive index, and appendices which contain a number of hitherto unpublished letters, documents relating to Elena Adelaide Shelley, Mary Shelley’s reading lists, a discussion of the busts and portraits of the poet, and other matters.

The scholarship, however, is unobtrusive. Though extending to two volumes, the work, especially when one gets to the treatment of Shelley’s maturity, is an absorbing experience. Old friends—Southey, Godwin, Byron, Leigh Hunt, Peacock, Trelawny, and a host of others—greet us in every chapter. As a personal narrative it is unexcelled.

The facts of Shelley’s life have been so frequently culled over that it is surprising to find new material in these volumes. Professor White, for example, has further unraveled the so-called “Hoppner scandal,” In February, 1819, Shelley appeared before the Registrar of Vital Statistics in Naples and signed a record declaring that a daughter, baptized Elena Adelaide Shelley, was born to him and Mary on December 27, 1818. Professor White has uncovered the birth, baptismal, and death records of this child. The baby could not have been Mary’s, and scandal carried to the Hoppners by a former maid of the Shelleys reported that the child was the poet’s and Jane Clairmont’s. Professor White argues that Elena was not of the Shelley household at all, but of unknown parentage, and that Shelley had merely adopted her, apparently without Mary’s knowledge, as a compensation for the loss of his daughter Clara. One ought also to mention the hitherto unpublished water-color portrait of Shelley which forms the frontispiece to the first volume. This portrait, believed to be the lost miniature of the poet by Edward Williams, does more than most verbal descriptions to bring Shelley before us as he actually was.

The greatest contribution of this book for the reader of Shelley will lie in the brilliant analyses of the longer poems and of the prose works. “Julian and Maddalo,” so long a stumbling block, is clearly analyzed in the light of Shelley’s domestic life, and the two women in the poem become merely Mary in full sympathy with Shelley and Mary embittered, shocked, and disillusioned after the death of Clara. “Prometheus Unbound” is interpreted carefully, the biographer neither falling to the temptation of making it a fully consistent allegory nor being satisfied with a treatment of its lyrical power alone. “Epipsychidion” is treated in both its autobiographical and intellectual relationships as one of the greatest love poems in our language. “Adonais,” studied in connection with Petrarch, is shown to be a further step forward in Shelley’s mastery of intellectual beauty as a concept. “Hellas,” as Professor White demonstrates, is far less a mere commentary on Greek affairs than a realization of the Greek world of Plato—the poem being therefore almost transcendental in its timelessness. In view of the comprehensive treatment of the poetry, one wishes for a fuller examination of “Alastor”; for it is not only the first of Shelley’s studies in the search for intellectual beauty and its relevant ideas but also an allegorical poem of considerable autobiographical importance. Scarcely less significant than the evaluation of Shelley’s poetry are the commentaries on the prose works. The essential sanity of Shelley’s mind, the temperance of his views, and his intellectual growth are perhaps even more observable in his prose works than in his poetry, but the true Shelley emerges only when both his poetry and prose are studied in the light of his character and personality.


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