I just read a $1 Dover Thrift Edition of some of Shelley’s poetry (a lot of good writing for not very much!) and concluded that sometimes I’m in the mood for Shelley and sometimes I’m not.
His language often, not always, feels diffuse by today’s standards—more redundancy or empty or lazy words like “sweet.” I may later analyze a particular poem to see if it bears out this impression, but I think Romantic writing in general tends to be this way.
If his words are diffuse, his ideas are (again, to a modern ear) almost monotonously focused. He has a few sorts of natural settings to which he returns again and again and perhaps two emotions that he expresses with any frequency that I can see: dejection (more rarely) and (most often) a rapturous sense of the ideal as experienced through nature—especially light and the sky—or love. In theory, I love reading about the latter; and sometimes, in his poetry, I do in fact. But maybe he comes at it too directly for me? (Or at least for my current self. I think there’s at least a chance my nature-loving younger self would have adored Shelley unreservedly). Enough of me loves Shelley even now that if I can relax into the right frame of mind I am moved, and I appreciate that he seems able to focus on the beautiful exclusively. I think this is something today’s literature may have lost, or, rather, turned away from—unabashed, exuberant love of an ideal that refuses to be mired in the rest of reality. I would like to have a bit of this in the happier parts of Of Evernost (…wish me luck.)
My favorite poem in this Selected Poems is “Epipsychidion”—partly because the writing felt tighter, and the sentiment as a result more continuous and intense; partly because I first met the poem in the middle of the night while I was working on a paper about Wuthering Heights (I was interested in the idea of shared or twin souls), so it has a sentimental draw.
Still, even in this beautiful poetry which I love to read—and probably this shows I have a cold and vulgar mind—I found myself thinking “this dude is married and writing this to some poor woman who may or may not even be interested in him and—and—and—” It also feels like a love poem that I might enjoy writing, if I were drunk and also a genius, but one that it would really stress me out to receive, which shows, if nothing else, that I am not cut out to be a Romantic poet’s muse.
I have these two responses side-by-side and I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s “Meditations in a Toolshed.” There’s the perspective from within the experience, from standing in the beam of light, the lover’s perspective or the believer’s, and there’s the perspective from outside the experience, the scientist’s or anthropologist’s or the perspective of the tiresome, critical, gossippy, “base” (in Shelley’s word), and unwanted audience member like me, or at least a part of me. In this case, I think both perspectives are important, and I don’t know which is truer, or whether that’s even a meaningful question.