Look on my works, ye Mighty, and Despair!

Today is the birthday of Percy Bysshe Shelley. He’d be 324 today, which means he’s been dead nearly ten times as long as he was alive. But that is not the central mystery of this poetic life.

Shelley was one of those souls I describe as “too great to be good.” I concede his literary brilliance and I salute his personal commitments.  He was a vegetarian, committed to social justice, and such a trailblazer in the field of nonviolent resistance that Gandhi credits him as a source. (Gandhi!)

But he was also a Grade-A, Extra-Large jerk. When a romance with a first cousin, Harriet, fell apart, he settled down with a 16-year-old adorer (also named Harriet). Some charitable sources suggest that Shelley married Harriet because he thought he’d die soon and wanted to leave his fortune to someone. Some more critical sources say that he later accused her of marrying him for his money. In any case, about three years into the marriage, Shelley took Mary (nee Godwin/Wollstonecraft), the daughter of his mentor (who became his mentor only after much lobbying and possibly some bribery), and a mere 16 (seems to be a trend), to Switzerland. Harriet was pregnant and Shelley’s stated reason for abandonment was that he needed more intellectual stimulation. One shall have to consult the OED for variant 19th-century meanings of “intellectual.”

About two years down the road, in October of 1816, Harriet’s very pregnant, 21-year-old body was fished out of the river where she had drowned herself. Two months later, Mary’s half-sister, Fanny, despondent over Shelley’s ill treatment of her, killed herself. [Always leaving them wanting more, was our man.] Three weeks after that, Percy and Mary were wed. Some family party that must have been.

At 29, Shelley died when his bespoke sailboat, the Don Juan, sank in mysterious circumstances. [Well, it sank in the sea, but amid mysterious circumstances.] George Gordon, Lord Byron, the King of the Jerks, upon hearing the news reportedly said, “I never knew a man who wasn’t a beast in comparison to him.” So now I understand the Irish.

However, he wrote some nice things. Here are a few:

1. Ozymandias


Shelley wrote this in competition with his friend Horace Smith. I think Horace ought to have won the bet, whatever it was, because Shelley cheated. It’s a sonnet: Where are my octet and sestet? Making up the rules as you go along, eh? Then again, if Byron is to be trusted [NB, Byron is not to be trusted] Smith must have been a beast, so fair play.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains.

Percy, how do you write something like this and still manage to be a jerk? Though not mighty, I do despair.

2. Prometheus Unbound


There is a lot of hubbubbery around what gets taught (and what doesn’t) in public schools these days. “Why can’t our kids boil an egg or balance a checkbook?” [You can buy already boiled eggs these days. And what’s a checkbook?] Why does not one get miffed over the lack of the Greek and the Latin? “Why can’t our kids write believable sequels to Aeschylus?” [asked no one ever.] Back the the 19th century, this was all the rage. It was the Pokemon Go of its era. And Shelley did rather a nice job of it. He compares his hero to Milton’s Satan, but better, of course, because he, Shelley, is Milton’s Satan and has rather a surfeit of pride.

Thou art omnipotent. ­‏
O’er all things but thyself I gave thee power…

That sounds like someone we know, doesn’t it? But there are moments, rapturous moments, when you start to see what Byron must have seen:

To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates…

Oh, Percy! If only your mother had taken the time to raise you properly.

3. The Necessity of Atheism


No surprises here. Were I Shelley, I would find atheism entirely necessary. Sadly, his theological sensibilities were dull compared to his poetic gifts. He argues eloquently against what he imagines theistic claims to be, but no points for burning the straw man:

“Jesus Christ would hardly have cited, as an example of all that is gentle and beneficent and compassionate, a Being who shall deliberately scheme to inflict on a large portion of the human race tortures indescribably intense and indefinitely protracted; who shall inflict them, too, without any mistake as to the true nature of pain—without any view to future good—merely because it is just.”

One must suppose that the casual threats of a few Oxford dons are behind this misapprehension of soteriology. What is clear to this theist is that God was merciful indeed in allowing Shelley to live in ignorance. His appetites were incompatible with Christianity and not susceptible, it seems, of being curbed. Let us hope mercy’s hand reached out somewhere between the deep blue sea and the devil.

4. The Triumph of Life


Swift as a spirit hastening to his task
Of glory & of good, the Sun sprang forth
Rejoicing in his splendour, & the mask
Of darkness fell from the awakened Earth.

So begins Shelley’s last, and unfinished work. The lyricism is as gorgeous as Milton’s, the conceit that of Dante. [I’m not sure Rousseau makes the best tour guide of the metaphysical, but there are worse choices.]

Bonaparte, Plato, and Bacon are shown as those who tried different paths in life and all are seen to fail equally. Rousseau tells his own tale and leaves the narrator wondering what it’s all about.

“Then, what is Life?” I said . . . the cripple cast
His eye upon the car which now had rolled
Onward, as if that look must be the last,
And answered …. “Happy those for whom the fold
Of …

Always leaving them more, was our man.

Extra English-major credit: When speaking of Don Juan, the legendary libertine, one pronounces it as one imagines one would. When speaking of the epic satire written by Lord Byron (and which Shelley encouraged him to write), one pronounces it Don JEWan. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it relates to the British worldview during the colonial era. The same reason the capital of China was moved from Peking to Beijing.

I hope you enjoyed this taste of the delectable and devilish Shelley. Join us again when you find yourself asking, “What should I read next?”