Rejecting Shelley, did the Moderns suppress not only beautiful poetry, but love itself?
The poet W.H. Auden (1906-1973) once summed up best the divide brought about by “modern” thought:
To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say,
Is a keen observer of life,
The word “Intellectual” suggests straight away
A man who’s untrue to his wife.
The topic—of sexual love or sexual morality or the morality of love—is a large one, and contains much that is shadowy and unseen, even as it appeals to the (yuk, yuk, wink, wink) obvious in our imaginations.
Competing religious and secular authorities throughout history have made us wonder: how forbidden should sex be? Should it be forbidden by an outside agency or forbidden in one’s heart? How dangerous is love? Who decides what it is and how it should be fostered, or controlled? How widespread should love’s influence be? What forms should it take? Let’s state right away a simple rule of thumb: too much ”freedom” or promiscuity is bad, and too much suppression and shame is bad, and let’s pretend, for the purposes of our present discussion, that this covers the purely social aspect of our subject.
But the topic as it relates to poetry, and creativity, and ultimate happiness, surely benefits from a more rapturous and thorough examination.
Plato’s Phaedrus presents two kinds of love—one is brute and selfish; the other is a divine madness which inspires and creates. Phaedrus shares with Socrates an essay: the non-lover is more trustworthy than the lover, it argues, because the lover, irrational, jealous, and possessive, ultimately harms the beloved. Socrates agrees, condenses and purifies the rhetoric of the essay into its simply expressed “wisdom,” but then Socrates suddenly regrets he has offended the Love deity, and expands his discourse into a paean on the second kind of mad love which is divine and creative.
The divine aspect of love is what Shelley is talking about in his Defense of Poetry:
The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb. A poet therefore would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither. By this assumption of the inferior office of interpreting the effect, in which perhaps after all he might acquit himself but imperfectly, he would resign a glory in a participation in the cause.
The strange assault on Shelley by the Modernists is perhaps best exemplified by T.S. Eliot’s 1932 Norton Lecture at Harvard; Eliot happily escaped England and his wife to tour and visit the United States in a triumphant homecoming. The ire and visceral hatred for both Shelley’s “ideas” and his ”poetry” expressed by Eliot at Harvard was profound: Old Possum admitted that he literally could not stomach the “adolescent,” Shelley. Eliot’s attack took the same form as another sexless-American-author-turned-Brit’s attack: on Poe—by Henry James.
But was Eliot right? We might say Eliot had maturity and Christianity on his side, and this passage by Shelley, (from “Epipsychidion”) which Eliot cites, is problematic. Here is Shelley:
I never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, though it is in the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread,
Who travel to their home among the dead
By the broad highway of the world, and so
With one chained friend, perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and the longest journey go. (Epipsychidion, lines 149-159)
It is important to remember two things: Shelley did not want this view widely desseminated. He asked his publisher in London to withdraw “Epipsychidion.” Shelley’s imagination was uncompromising, and the “code of morals” isn’t always the best for everyone, all the time—in terms of change, or acceptance. Shelley, though a popular author, did believe a ‘class readership’ existed, and who wouldn’t? Poe, another highly popular author, believed the same thing. There are things the uneducated will not, and should not understand. (Of course wanting the uneducated to become educated is a worthy goal; but that’s a different topic.)
But the second thing is more important. Look at the next lines of the poem, and how Shelley expands his argument:
True Love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away.
Love is like understanding, that grows bright,
Gazing on many truths; ’tis like thy light,
Imagination! which from earth and sky,
And from the depths of human fantasy,
As from a thousand prisms and mirrors, fills
The Universe with glorious beams, and kills
Error, the worm, with many a sun-like arrow
Of its reverberated lightning. Narrow
The heart that loves, the brain that contemplates,
The life that wears, the spirit that creates
One object, and one form, and builds thereby
A sepulchre for its eternity.
Mind from its object differs most in this:
Evil from good; misery from happiness;
The baser from the nobler; the impure
And frail, from what is clear and must endure.
If you divide suffering and dross, you may
Diminish till it is consumed away;
If you divide pleasure and love and thought,
Each part exceeds the whole; and we know not
How much, while any yet remains unshared,
Of pleasure may be gained, of sorrow spared:
This truth is that deep well, whence sages draw
The unenvied light of hope; the eternal law
By which those live, to whom this world of life
Is as a garden ravaged, and whose strife
Tills for the promise of a later birth
The wilderness of this Elysian earth.
Shelley is advocating love as expansive and freeing, rather than narrowing and imprisoning. It is interesting that Benjamin Franklin expresses the same idea in a letter:
What a difference, my dear friend, between you and me! You find innumerable faults with me, whereas I see only one fault in you (but perhaps that is the fault of my glasses). I mean this kind of avarice which leads you to seek monopoly on all my affection, and not allow me any for the agreeable ladies of your country.
Do you imagine that it is impossible for my affection (or my tenderness) to be divided without being diminished? You deceive yourself, and you forget the playful manner with which you stopped me. You renounce and totally exclude all that might be of the flesh in our affection, allowing me only some kisses, civil and honest, such as you might grant your little cousins. What am I receiving that is so special as to prevent me from giving the same to others, without taking from what belongs to you?
The sweet sounds brought forth from the pianoforte by your clever hand can be enjoyed by twenty people simultaneously without diminishing at all the pleasure you so obligingly mean for me, and I could, with as little reason, demand from your affection that no other ears but mine be allowed to be charmed by those sweet sounds.
Benjamin [Franklin] 1779
When we theorize on love, it makes sense to begin with relationships between actual people—between lovers, as difficult as the evidence sometimes is to collect. We hardly know our own hearts—how can we know the hearts of others? And then we also realize:—how can actual people, such as Benjamin Franklin or Shelley be compared to the average, crippled, superstitious, mortal? We can leave this aside as inconsequential, if we wish; we could worship the accomplishments of a Franklin, or not; but we should still examine the scientific evidence on the question at hand: it is true that love can divide itself and still increase? Is this, in fact, how love operates? And is love—that obsesses and pines over one object, or one person—love? Which love should we, as a society, prefer? The “genius” (Shelley, Franklin) examines love mathematically, stripped bare of all morality, and discovers a scientific truth based on the evidence of their own feelings.
Shelley finds the truth of love, a pre-moral, mathematical, truth, and brings it to the world, only to find love’s mathematical truth is morally repellent on a certain level—at least to someone like T.S. Eliot. Shelley’s truth is vulnerable, since it is not actualized by jealous and superstitious humankind yet; Eliot’s charge of “adolescence” rings true for those who agree with Eliot: Shelley is guilty of immature over-idealizing. But is Shelley guilty of this? Here we are at a great philosophical and spiritual crossroads.
The modern temper is mostly on Eliot’s side. But we take our stand with Shelley. Here is Shelley, again, and Eliot had access to this; as we see Shelley fill out his ideas on the subject of fee love, we have to ask, are these ideas “repellent” and “adolescent?” Perhaps there is some excessive and hyperbolic Rousseau-ism at work here, but Shelley is thinking the problem through:
Prostitution is the legitimate offspring of marriage and its accompanying errors. Women, for no other crime than having followed the dictates of a natural appetite, are driven with fury from the comforts and sympathies of society. It is less venial than murder; and the punishment which is inflicted on her who destroys her child to escape reproach is lighter than the life of agony and disease to which the prostitute is irrecoverably doomed. Has a woman obeyed the impulse of unerring nature—society declares war on her, pitiless and eternal war: she must be the tame slave, she make no reprisals; theirs is the right of persecution, her the duty of endurance. She lives a life of infamy: the loud and bitter laugh of scorn scares her from all return. She dies of long and lingering disease: yet she is in fault, she is the criminal, she the froward and untameable child—and society, forsooth, the pure and virtuous matron, who casts her as an abortion from her undefiled bosom! Society avenges herself on criminals of her own creation; she is employed in anathematising the vice of today which yesterday she was the most zealous to teach. Thus is formed one tenth of the population of London: meanwhile the evil is twofold. Young men, excluded by the fanatical idea of chastity from the society of modest and accomplished women, associate with these vicious and miserable beings, destroying thereby all those exquisite and delicate sensibilities whose existence cold-hearted worldlings have denied; anniilating all genuine passion, and debasing that to a selfish feeling which is the excess of generosity and devotedness. Their body and mind alike crumble into a hideous wreck of humanity; idiocy and disease become perpetuated in their miserable offspring, and distant generations suffer for the bigoted morality of their forefathers. Chastity is a monkish and evangelical superstition, a greater foe to natural temperance than unintellectual sensuality; it strikes at the root of all domestic happiness, and consigns more than half of the human race to misery, that some few may monopolise according to law. A system could not well have been devised more studiously hostile to human happiness than marriage.
I conceive that, from the abolition of marriage, the fit and natural arrangement of sexual connection would result. I by no means assert that the intercourse would be promiscuous: on the contrary; it appears, from the relation of parent to child, that this union is generally of long duration, and marked above all others with generosity and self-devotion. But this is a subject premature to discuss. That which will result from the abolition of marriage, will be natural and right; because choice and change will be exempted from restraint.
One can disagree with this (from Shelley’s Queen Mab). Thomas Eliot’s puritanical hanging of Shelley, however, and the modernist hatred of Shelley in general which it engendered, seems to belong to that ubiquitous tribe of thinkers who narrowly blame; they seek diminishment, purity, sterility, punishment, retrograde, and return; if someone is beautiful, they assume them shallow; if someone is hopeful, they assume them ignorant; if someone is joyful, they assume them stupid; if somone is enterprising, they assume them selfish; two can never gain in their eyes; two can never be happy—one has to suffer if another is happy, if one is happy, the other has to suffer; all gain implies a loss somewhere else and they are satisfied with all systems that reflect this; they would rather be wicked in their realism than beautiful ideally; their world-view makes envy and jealousy normal; they seek to counter all pleasure with pain, since it is a doctrine that begins in their mind and talks its way into their heart—or, some worldly affliction breeds it in their heart and it then melts their mind; they are certain the amount of joy must always equal the amount of sorrow. Life is not an adventure, but a rule to be obeyed; fear, avoidance, and accusation drive them, not love, hope, and endurance.
This is not to say all are not afflicted by the real, or that sorrow and pain do not have a real existence; Shelley’s poetry contains all sorts of reference to sorrow and pain—the loving and hopeful do not have to be naive—but love and hope are making active war against sorrow and sameness in Shelley; Shelley is the optimist, Eliot, the pessimist; Shelley’s poetry, thought, taste, and philosophy as a whole is triumphant, and to call it “adolescent” is adolescent.
Now we have to come to terms with our own era: Eliot reviled Shelley at Harvard in 1932; in 1933, Eliot made his anti-Jewish speech at the University of Virginia; as the decade went on, Eliot’s bosom-buddy Pound began broadcasting from fascist Italy; their New Critic associates continued to hit Shelley (and another genius, Poe, was a target, too)—it was a poetry establishment pile-on, as the Creative Writing business and “the new” became cynical allies in the hands of Pound’s and Eliot’s lackeys.
As WW II raged, Eliot must have thought, “my criticism has come true: the 19th century really is naive, and poets like Shelley are adolescent—compared to the grown-up horrors of the 20th century! Take that, you wimpy romantic poet bitches!” And yes, perhaps “adolescent” Shelley could not have imagined Pound and Eliot’s 20th century. And we have to leave off Shelley, and we can’t go back.
But when we look simply at Shelley’s skill as a poet, and the beautiful ideas behind the poetry, I’ll go back.
Edgar Poe is a chaste author, and rarely touches on sex, but Poe was more like the generous Shelley in his views on the morality of love than has previously been understood. Look at Poe’s tale, Eleanora, which offers a beautiful alternative to Stephen King and the nerd-revenge sensibility—which has grown in the last 50 years into a giant, gory, many-layered industry of horribly bad taste.
In the three excerpts from the story below, Poe first sets up the sexual union; then Eleanora dies and the narrator makes a promise, and, finally, the narrator finds someone new.
The puritantical, Stephen King, revenge-theme never appears.
In Poe’s tale, Shelleyan love triumphs.
Hand in hand about this valley, for fifteen years, roamed I with Eleonora before Love entered within our hearts. It was one evening at the close of the third lustrum of her life, and of the fourth of my own, that we sat, locked in each other’s embrace, beneath the serpent-like trees, and looked down within the waters of the River of Silence at our images therein. We spoke no words during the rest of that sweet day; and our words even upon the morrow were tremulous and few.
She had seen that the finger of Death was upon her bosom — that, like the ephemeron, she had been made perfect in loveliness only to die; but the terrors of the grave to her, lay solely in a consideration which she revealed to me, one evening at twilight, by the banks of the River of Silence. She grieved to think that, having entombed her in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass, I would quit forever its happy recesses, transferring the love which now was so passionately her own to some maiden of the outer and every-day world. And, then and there, I threw myself hurriedly at the feet of Eleonora, and offered up a vow, to herself and to Heaven, that I would never bind myself in marriage to any daughter of Earth — that I would in no manner prove recreant to her dear memory, or to the memory of the devout affection with which she had blessed me. And I called the Mighty Ruler of the Universe to witness the pious solemnity of my vow. And the curse which I invoked of Him and of her, a saint in Helusion, should I prove traitorous to that promise, involved a penalty the exceeding great horror of which will not permit me to make record of it here. And the bright eyes of Eleonora grew brighter at my words; and she sighed as if a deadly burthen had been taken from her breast; and she trembled and very bitterly wept; but she made acceptance of the vow, (for what was she but a child?) and it made easy to her the bed of her death. And she said to me, not many days afterwards, tranquilly dying, that, because of what I had done for the comfort of her spirit she would watch over me in that spirit when departed, and, if so it were permitted her return to me visibly in the watches of the night; but, if this thing were, indeed, beyond the power of the souls in Paradise, that she would, at least, give me frequent indications of her presence; sighing upon me in the evening winds, or filling the air which I breathed with perfume from the censers of the angels. And, with these words upon her lips, she yielded up her innocent life, putting an end to the first epoch of my own.
Yet the promises of Eleonora were not forgotten; for I heard the sounds of the swinging of the censers of the angels; and streams of a holy perfume floated ever and ever about the valley; and at lone hours, when my heart beat heavily, the winds that bathed my brow came unto me laden with soft sighs; and indistinct murmurs filled often the night air; and once — oh, but once only! I was awakened from a slumber, like the slumber of death, by the pressing of spiritual lips upon my own.
But the void within my heart refused, even thus, to be filled. I longed for the love which had before filled it to overflowing. At length the valley pained me through its memories of Eleonora, and I left it forever for the vanities and the turbulent triumphs of the world.
I found myself within a strange city, where all things might have served to blot from recollection the sweet dreams I had dreamed so long in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass. The pomps and pageantries of a stately court, and the mad clangor of arms, and the radiant loveliness of woman, bewildered and intoxicated my brain. But as yet my soul had proved true to its vows, and the indications of the presence of Eleonora were still given me in the silent hours of the night. Suddenly, these manifestations they ceased; and the world grew dark before mine eyes; and I stood aghast at the burning thoughts which possessed — at the terrible temptations which beset me; for there came from some far, far distant and unknown land, into the gay court of the king I served, a maiden to whose beauty my whole recreant heart yielded at once — at whose footstool I bowed down without a struggle, in the most ardent, in the most abject worship of love. What indeed was my passion for the young girl of the valley in comparison with the fervor, and the delirium, and the spirit-lifting ecstasy of adoration with which I poured out my whole soul in tears at the feet of the ethereal Ermengarde? — Oh, bright was the seraph Ermengarde! and in that knowledge I had room for none other. — Oh, divine was the angel Ermengarde! and as I looked down into the depths of her memorial eyes, I thought only of them — and of her.
I wedded; — nor dreaded the curse I had invoked; and its bitterness was not visited upon me. And once — but once again in the silence of the night, there came through my lattice the soft sighs which had forsaken me; and they modelled themselves into familiar and sweet voice, saying:
“Sleep in peace! — for the Spirit of Love reigneth and ruleth, and, in taking to thy passionate heart her who is Ermengarde, thou art absolved, for reasons which shall be made known to thee in Heaven, of thy vows unto Eleonora.”