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Good self, bad self: The Struggle in Shelley

  • Ann Wroe

…plus d’informations

  • Ann Wroe
    Independent scholar

Corps de l’article

In April 1811 Percy Bysshe Shelley, then 18, found himself living alone in a first-floor room in Poland Street, in London. It was a dark room, with violent diagonal wallpaper featuring large green leaves and purple bunches of grapes. Surprisingly, that wasn’t the problem. Shelley loved the wallpaper. But he was deeply unhappy with himself. “I cannot endure the horror the evil that comes to self in solitude,” he wrote to his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg when the sojourn was over (The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley I, 77). And again, while still in the thick of it, “I am sick to Death at the name of self” (34).

What did Shelley mean? What was going on? We know he was at a low ebb psychologically. He had just been expelled after a mere two terms at Oxford for writing what seemed to him a most reasonable little tract, The Necessity of Atheism. This had caused all sorts of problems with home, and with his father. He had broken up, the previous summer, with his cousin Harriet Grove, whose parents had definitively blacklisted him for his atheistical opinions. He had already met, and been impressed by, Harriet Westbrook, who was to become his first wife; but this interest, probably, did not yet outweigh the sudden yawning emptiness in his life. He was not writing much in the way of poetry, but he was spending hours and hours trying to record his dreams. And he was not—according to his cousin Tom Medwin—having much success at it (89, 269-70).

What seems to have been actually happening in Poland Street was that Shelley was embarking on the line of inquiry that was to consume much of the rest of his life. He was trying to explore his inner nature, to find out who he was, and was making use of this new emptiness to go deeper than he had before. It was becoming clear to him gradually that the “Shelley” he had been progressing towards—the Oxford graduate, the young aristocrat comfortably settled on a large acreage in Sussex, perhaps the Member of Parliament—was no longer going to exist. There would be no local marriage. He was going to give up his interest in the family estate. His father, increasingly estranged from him, was no longer going to open the necessary doors in society, and the people who might have clustered to the magic of his “unmeaning name,” as he put it in “The Retrospect | Cwm Elan 1812,” [1] were going to be disappointed. And perhaps it would be a good thing if this Shelley disappeared: for if he lost the burdens of land, property, money, fame and expectation, if even the longing for these things faded, selfishness too would vanish, and Shelley would be left with the purity, lightness and virtue—the shining boundlessness and possibility—of his true self.

Intimations of this self had already come to him. He was to write in his essay “On Life” of his sensations as a child: of feeling then that his nature was “dissolved into the surrounding universe,” and the universe absorbed into his being (Forman 2: 261). There were no distinctions then, no limitations: he was one with all creation and, he already sensed, at once the centre and circumference of all he saw. To the child, he wrote,

 …every thing familiar seems to be
Wonderful, and the immortality
Of the great world, which all things must inherit
Is felt as one with the awakening spirit
Unconscious of itself, & of the strange
Distinctions, which in its proceeding change
It feels & knows, and mourns, as if each were
A desolation… [2]

In a fragment of very late poetry, from 1822, he seemed to describe that childhood state again, lying by a Sussex pond in the heat of noon, while the “fire-tailed stars of the world of his brain” flashed behind his drowsing eyes. [3] The universe lay inside. And “A sabbath Walk,” written in Wales in 1811 or 1812, produced the sense that the only God he should bow to, despite all the clanging church bells he could hear across the valley, was the god that seemed to make of his own heart “A temple for its purity,” (The Esdaile Notebook 51-3, 2) the source somehow of all that was wise and good, within himself.

But first he had to cast the bad self off. And that was not just a matter of defying the dons and his father. If he was really “sick to Death at the name of self” it meant ceasing to care about comfort—that exciting wallpaper, the delights of tea-cakes stuffed with spice and raisins, the fine silk waistcoats in which he had paraded round at Oxford. It meant ceasing to notice, in a self-pitying way, that he had “a slight attack of Typhus” and was “feeling a little dizzy today” (Jones 1: 39). In fact, the chief disease he had to worry his head over was not to be found in Trotter’s “View of the Nervous Temperament”: it was what Shelley liked to call philautia, or self-love (Jones 1: 96, 123). And the challenge he set himself—not just in 1811, but through the rest of his life—was to set self-love aside.

Once he had stopped dwelling on himself, he could start to turn outwards to the world. He could enter in true sympathy into the lives and sufferings of others: revolutionists, prostitutes, elderly women living on the parish, or even the tired, gray figures who passed him on the London streets (Hunt 267). And he would try to improve the earth not out of anger, revenge or hurt pride—all those expressions of the bad self which, as he wrote in his Preface to The Revolt of Islam, had turned the French Revolution into one long spasm of horror (Hutchinson 33)—but out of generosity and out of love. He would fulfil the true duty of a poet, setting before his readers “idealisms of moral excellence,” “dreams of what ought to be, or may be” (Jones 2: 96), drawn from that deep interior source of virtue and of truth. And those inspired by him might then change everything.

Shelley instinctively disliked the notion of duality. As an avid reader of Lucretius at Eton, he concluded that mind and soul were both “stuff” of some sort (Jones 1: 45); as an eager reader of Berkeley later on, he considered even the densest matter a construct of mind, and immaterial (for example, Forman 2: 259-63, 293). Either way, he blames what he calls the “shocking absurdities” of the theological distinction between matter and spirit for much of what has gone wrong in the world (Forman 2: 259). So it seems odd that he was so conscious of a division between matter and spirit in himself. But he was. Matter was the domain of the bad self that he was trying to suppress.

It began with his own body, a craving shell of pain and disease and wilful appetite. Shelley is very seldom impressed by any body’s beauty. Instead, as in Adonais, he revels in its corruption:

 …—We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.


The body’s senses tried to persuade him that earthly life, that “painted veil” (Prometheus Unbound 3. 4. 190), was real and true. But his higher self—or soul, or spirit—told him it was all illusion. His senses were dazzled by the loveliness of Nature, but his soul viewed it merely as a “slow stain” or a “contagion” on a greater Beauty and a brighter and eternal Light (Adonais, 356). The same case is made in the last lines, both whimsical and serious, of the Conclusion of The Sensitive Plant:

 …in this life
Of error, ignorance and strife,
Where nothing is, but all things seem,
And we the shadows of the dream,
 It is a modest creed, and yet
Pleasant if one considers it,
To own that death itself must be,
Like all the rest, a mockery…
 For love, and beauty, and delight,
There is no death nor change; their might
Exceeds our organs, which endure
No light, being themselves obscure.

122-5, 134-7

The body’s blindness, its wilful immersion in the dance of life (that dreadful, frenzied dance, ending in obscenity and dissolution, which Shelley so memorably evokes in his last, great, unfinished poem The Triumph of Life) was a drag on the true self at every turn. This was his consistent philosophy. Here are body and soul described in Queen Mab, written ten years earlier, in 1812. How different they are, Shelley says:

 …One aspires to Heaven,
Pants for its sempiternal heritage,
And ever changing, ever rising still,
 Wantons in endless being.
The other, for a time the unwilling sport
Of circumstance and passion, struggles on;
Fleets through its sad duration rapidly;
Then, like an useless and worn-out machine,
 Rots, perishes, and passes.

1. 148-56

The whole of Queen Mab can be seen as an expression of duality. The soul of the heroine Ianthe, exactly like her but brighter, purer, and free, leaves the sleeping body and sees the world both as it is, and as it might be. The body is heavy as marble, the eyes closed and unseeing; the soul travels, in the astral body of Queen Mab’s chariot, to the ends of the universe, sometimes dizzyingly fast among the stars. Body belongs to earth; soul transcends it.

The body is also the repository of the will—and will, by and large, is not a good thing in Shelley. It is the very epitome of the bad self. He associates it with pride, revenge, anger, domination, and the temper tantrums of his little son William (for those alarming spasms of selfishness surely cannot have come from his father). It is the will to worldly power that chains the phantom of Napoleon as he stumbles along the highway of existence in The Triumph of Life (215-31). And it is will, as Shelley patiently explains to the mocking Byron in Julian and Maddalo,

That thus enchains us to permitted ill—
We might be otherwise—we might be all
We dream of, happy, high, majestical.
Where is the love, beauty and truth we seek,
But in our mind?


Shelley is not just arguing with Byron in those lines. He is also arguing with himself: trying to beat down the part of him that is too like his lordly friend, the worldly part that cares about book sales and fine lodgings and appearances, as well as the sceptical, pessimistic side that doubts whether men can ever raise themselves from the dirt. “You talk Utopia,” says Byron to him (179). And we may wonder how often, as Shelley wrote or as he dreamed, that same voice would sneer the same words from that other, worse, part of him.

If Shelley believed that men’s own wills kept them mired in misery and oppression, did he acknowledge that their own wills could also set them free? Only partly. The human will was a “means of good,” as he acknowledged in The Triumph of Life (231). But the complete regeneration of mankind he dreamed of would actually have to come from the will’s surrender. “Resist not the weakness—/ Such strength is in meekness,” he writes in Prometheus Unbound (2. 3. 93-4). The full power of human beings lies in their submission to something higher: in open acceptance, absorption and transmission of the power of transcendent Liberty and transcendent Love. The good self, the soul, does not grab, insist or impose itself. It waits and receives. And when faced with evil and oppression—as in his great clarion call The Mask of Anarchy, written immediately after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819—that non-violent soul-patience, fortified with truth and strength, will overthrow whole armies and regimes.

Shelley was also well aware that, as a poet, no act of will or self-aggrandisement could summon up his creative and re-ordering power—a legislator’s power, as he describes it in A Defence of Poetry in 1821 (Leader and O’Neill 701). “A man,” he insisted,

cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry.’ The greatest poet even cannot say it, for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness: this power arises from within like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.


That power from within, that colour, was an unconscious expression of the true self; and indeed Shelley, looking at roses, speculated that it was precisely perfume and colour, those transient effects, that pointed to the essence that did not change (696). He saw the same in faces: the soul in a blush, a passing smile, the expression of the eyes. The beautiful and eternal in Shelley’s poems are always, paradoxically, the most mutable, as hard to catch as mist or music. The act of pinning down those immaterial things, the “agony & bloody sweat” as he describes it (Jones 1: 578), is where the will comes in, with its struggling lumpen words. The act that has preceded it, the poetic intuition, is one of pure surrender: thought, time and effort held in suspension, with the will abandoned, as in the “Ode to the West Wind”:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
 Will take from both a sweet, autumnal tone
Sweet though in sadness.


Shelley wrestled so much with the concept of will because he struggled with the notion of self that lay behind it. He uses the word “self” both pejoratively, as selfishness, and reverently, as soul. Occasionally this can get confusing. When he speaks, as previously mentioned, of “the horror the evil that comes to self in solitude,” we may wonder which self he means; but it is more likely to be the true self, weighed down with miserable, obsessive thoughts. And those thoughts and images, of course, are the bad self at work; so busy with distractions, so tied to passing time in the day-to-day world, that the good self may forget what it is. The greatest sin for Shelley, as he expresses it in Rosalind and Helen, is “foul Self-contempt” (479): disregard for the Liberty, Divinity and Beauty the soul reflects and represents. This sin doesn’t show on the surface; it is an “inward stain,” that gradually obscures the child’s “starlight smile” (478, 490). Conversely, self-esteem is one of his great virtues. Not pride; not conceit; but a deep valuing of what the true self is and the absolutes to which it is connected.

Yet as long as the soul is imprisoned in mortality, like a shackled prisoner in a cave—in Shelley’s much-loved image from Plato’s Republic—it is bound to forget. The good self is numbed and abashed, or simply sleeps, as Shelley presents it at one point in Epipsychidion (338-40); the bad self becomes pestering and even overwhelming. In The Revolt of Islam Shelley’s hero-self Laon, starving in prison, sees multiple images of himself dancing mockingly before him (3. 1306-14). And in his poem “O! there are spirits of the air”—which Mary thought was addressed to Coleridge, but was equally addressed to himself—Shelley talks of a “foul fiend” walking beside him, which cannot be chased away because it is himself (30). “Be as thou art,” he tells it (35). Be what earthly existence has made you.

Shelley often shudders with disgust at these apparitions: perhaps never more so than in The Triumph of Life, where the thoughts of human beings swarm from their heads like bats or flies, and where their false faces change and drop away in a grotesque series of masks (480-541). His ghosts, too, cling around the body, unable to break away from matter even in decay, since matter seems to be the essence of their uniqueness and their character. But Shelley is also fascinated by these phantoms, feeling that they express other, unacknowledged aspects of himself. They lead him to wonder about different realms and states of being, domains of the mind and dreams, to which these figments seem to belong, and in which something of the heaviness of existence has already begun to dissolve. He calls them “Intelligences”—messengers of a sort—and draws them in with strange, wavering outlines, like images viewed underwater. [4]

Most famously, in certain “waking dreams,” he comes face to face with himself: not the shadow behind or beside him, but a spectre separate and apart. At Villa Magni on the Bay of Lerici, in the summer of 1822—his last summer—he is drawn from bed by a hooded phantom that leads him across the salon and then turns to face him: his own face. It asks him: “Shelley, are you satisfied?” (I, 163-4) A Faustian question. If he gives the answer yes, that he is satisfied with life and with time, he loses his soul. So is it the bad self, then, or the good self, that interrogates him? Perhaps it is neither: just his own thought-form or phantasm of himself, confronting him from the realm of dreams to force him to a choice between them.

Shelley’s most celebrated description of “meeting the double” occurs in the first act of Prometheus Unbound:

 Ere Babylon was dust
The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image walking in the garden.
That apparition, sole of men, he saw.
For know there are two worlds of life and death:
One that which thou beholdest; but the other
Is underneath the grave, where do inhabit
The shadows of all forms that think and live
Till death unite them and they part no more;
Dreams and the light imaginings of men,
And all that faith creates or love desires,
Terrible, strange, sublime and beauteous shapes,
There thou art, and dost hang, a writhing shade…

1. 191-203

Here again, as he describes it in Note 6 of Hellas, ideas have assumed “the force of sensations through the confusion of thought with the objects of thought.” He hardly knows whether he is dreaming or waking.

It is tempting to see all Shelley’s poetic projections of himself in this murky dream-world too: the nameless wandering poet of Alastor, the suffering idealist Lionel of Rosalind and Helen, the sad young Prince Athanase, and all the rest. In Adonais, his elegy for John Keats, Shelley lingers behind the other, more illustrious mourners, crowned with dying pansies and violets and with his poet’s thyrsus in his hand (280-97). He is certainly in that shadow-world, for he is a wraith already. His dream-shapes of himself are almost always frail, drooping, dying or dissolving, but this is misleading. He doesn’t truly mean to be so pathetic—or only part of him does. The outward form—the bad self, again—comes close to vanishing in order to let the good shine through in strength. The “weakness” and “desolation” of the ghost-poet in Adonais are wrapped like misty cloaks round Power and round Love (281-2).

Shelley was all too aware—every time he looked in the mirror, or had a blazing row with the servants, or one of those miserable exchanges of “bare, broad” words with Mary (Julian and Maddalo 232)—of his bad self. What about the good? How often was he aware of his good self as a present, active entity, as opposed to merely hoping that one day it might gloriously emerge and soar, this “butterfly, whose million hues/ The dazzled eye of wonder views,” from the chrysalis of his body (“The Retrospect. | Cwm Elan 1812” 140-1)?

He could track its power in his best visionary writing; for he knew it was the soul’s alchemical force, its capacity to transform by synthesising, ordering and creating, that made his poetry (Forman 3: 100, 139-40). Not all of it; the political ballads and short lyrics, or the outbursts of emotion tied to erotic disappointments, were “stuff,” as he put it to Hogg in 1811 (Jones 1: 43-4), produced out of mere feeling, and therefore not much good as poetry, however much the anthologists may dote upon them now. Prevailing over selfishness, expanding his horizon, illuminating the world like the sun, for in every use of his sympathetic imagination he too was a light-bringer. In “Lines Written among the Euganean Hills,” in 1818, he describes explicitly how his own sun-power illuminates the view towards Venice, gilds the domes of the city, makes it glow with thoughts of liberty, because the entirety of this wider scene is centred on himself.

The dun and bladed grass no less,
Pointing from this hoary tower
In the windless air; the flower
Glimmering at my feet; the line
Of the olive-sandalled Apennine
In the south dimly islanded;
And the Alps, whose snows are spread
High between the clouds and sun;
And of living things each one;
And my spirit which so long
Darkened this swift stream of song,
Interpenetrated lie
By the glory of the sky;
Be it love, light, harmony,
Odour, or the soul of all
Which from heaven like dew doth fall,
Or the mind which feeds this verse
Peopling the lone universe.


Yet the poet and the man, of course, were not the same. As he told his friends the Gisbornes in 1821, they were different natures, and “though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other, & incapable of deciding on each other’s powers & effects by any reflex act” (Jones 2: 310). So though the poet performed this extraordinary alchemy, the man limped after, longing to know how. What was the source of this godlike imaginative power—in other words, of himself? And proceeding from that, what was the true nature of Shelley, his origin, and the purpose of his life?

These metaphysical questions did not much interest either his readers or his friends, but they consumed him. Mary pictured him seeking obsessively, plumbing the depths of himself, until these intense meditations “thrilled him with pain” (I, xvii). He had done so years before he met her; he would do so until his death, so that even that freak sailing accident in the Gulf of Spezia in 1822 can come to seem just another episode in the long, compulsive search.

Shelley himself did not call these meditations. As far as he describes them, they were more like his active “adventurings,” following streams of thought to their source, exploring labyrinth after labyrinth of the caves of the mind, sailing over trackless oceans (as in Alastor, 87-94, 369-403, 492-570; Forman 2: 291). [5] He emerged sometimes from these searches wild and terrified; sometimes subdued; and sometimes with extraordinary things. In Queen Mab, he talks of “perfection’s germ” within himself and all mortals (5. 147), which he later describes as “the god of my own heart” (Jones 2: 394). The imagery is striking, closer to the Hindu Upanishads—which he had never encountered—than anything we know he read. He found, in Alastor, the caverns of his mind domed with the constellations (90-4); and in Prometheus Unbound, having plunged “through the veil and the bar/ Of things which seem and are,” he glimpsed one diamond shining in the dark (2. 3. 59-60, 86-7). Not only the universe was within him: he also discovered there, deep within, what seemed to be an astonishing reflection of the transcendent powers of Beauty, Love and Liberty beyond the created world.

Here is how he tried to describe it in 1815 or so—having scribbled down first that mere words were completely “ineffectual,” and “no help” to him.

We dimly see within our intellectual nature a miniature as it were of our entire self, yet deprived of all that we condemn or despise, the ideal prototype of every thing excellent or lovely that we are capable of conceiving as belonging to the nature of man. Not only the portrait of our external being but an assemblage of the minutest part[icles] of which our nature is composed: a mirror whose surface reflects only the forms of purity and brightness…

BSM, e. 11, 7; Leader and O’Neill 632

When Shelley was reading his favourite Greek playwrights—Aeschylus, especially—he sensed this self depicted in them, a being stripped of all but “that ideal perfection and energy which every one feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires and would become” (Forman 3: 115-6). He saw its harmonious and lovely shape in the pure white forms of Greek statuary. But the poet could always go still further and still deeper towards that “embodied Ray/ Of the great Brightness” (Hutchinson 426). In 1821 he wrote these lines; never quite sorted out, and never used.

 Within [the temple] a cavern of [the mind of man] man’s inmost [trackless] spirit
Is throned [an Idol] so intensely fair
That the adventurous thoughts which wander near it
Worship—and as they kneel, [like votaries,] wear
The splendour of its presence—& the light
Penetrates their dreamlike frame
[And lifts] them [as] like the [might] of flame
They forever change & pass but it remains the same.

BSM, e. 6 105 rev [6]

When Shelley invokes the “Great Spirit” and the “Immortal Deity” (“Ode to Naples,” 149; BSM, e. 4 front pastedown; e. 6 33) these too are throned “in the depth of human thought,” as well as far beyond it. In contemplation, his own “aweless soul” and the “Power unknown” are equal, and they are one (“Ode to Liberty,” 233). That power within—Love, as he finally seems to understand it (BSM, e.7 6, 10)—is, in fact, his God, reflected there.

Shelley’s intimations of his own divinity were so frequent and so striking that it seems his good self should easily have got the upper hand. He should have been able to believe that his birthright was immortality and his origin, as well as his destination, some place “afar/ From the sphere of our sorrow” (“To—— (‘One word is too often profaned’),” 15-16). But it was not so. Though the poet intuited and knew these things, the man, mired in the world, insisted he could not believe what he could not prove. His friend Trelawny once asked him whether he believed in the immortality of the spirit. Shelley apparently snapped: “Certainly not; how can I? We know nothing; we have no evidence; we cannot express our inmost thoughts. They are incomprehensible even to ourselves” (Trelawny 1: 92). The best Shelley feels he can do, as some sort of compromise between these positions, is to settle on hope: “to hope till Hope creates/ From its own wreck the thing it contemplates” (Prometheus Unbound, 4. 573-4). He must hope that futurity may be as his good self implies it is.

He is still searching, too, for his own completion: for the antitype to that “ideal prototype of every thing excellent or lovely” that he has glimpsed in himself. In almost every young woman he came close to he seemed, for a while, to have found it, before the usual shattering disappointment. It was of course even harder on the women involved, several of them teenagers, and all of them schooled in early nineteenth-century notions of morality and propriety. His urge to instruct them in unfettered, transcendent love, to make them what he idealised them to be, led to the suicide of his first wife Harriet and long periods of misery for Mary Godwin, his second wife. “How you reason and philosophize about love,” Mary wrote to him, teasingly, when their love was new (Jones 1: 147). Shelley could not help it. For him, as he told her, physical love was just a preliminary stage in that endless quest to “know thyself”—self-oblivion, and self-discovery, in the Other (Jones 1: 414). The “faintness” and “abandon” he felt during sex (BSM, e. 6 46; The Revolt of Islam, 6. 2644-6) was only the most primitive form of the mystical union with the Beloved he was longing for, made explicit in Epipsychidion in 1821. And if that ultimate self-completion was not to be found, there was no point in staying together.

In matters of love, Shelley’s behaviour was arrant selfishness in the world’s terms. He justified it otherwise, but it is hard to defend it, all the same. And more generally, too, the careful line he had drawn between self-love (which was bad) and self-esteem (which was good) proved largely invisible. His self-searching often looked, and still looks, like Narcissism to the outside world. He meant to include everyone about him in the Light and Love discovered in his own heart, spreading out from centre to circumference. But instead the world’s indifference caused him to close in on himself in bitterness, weariness and self-pity. As a poet, he felt, he ought to be wise and happy, “the author to others of the highest wisdom, pleasure, virtue and glory” (A Defence of Poetry, Leader and O’Neill 699). But as a human being, he could not cast the bad self off.

He very seldom managed it. A true Pythagorean, as his friend Leigh Hunt called Shelley in 1817 (Barcus 142-3), would have lived on bread and water, gone in rags, and made learning his only sustenance. Shelley was never really a Pythagorean, just as he was never really a democrat. He was too far a member of the aristocracy for either pose. His clothes were well-made. He drove his own expensive carriage, and had servants always. He decorated his house in Marlow with colour co-ordinated wallpapers and curtains, and placed life-size Greek statues in his enormous library. He might forget to send his linen to the wash or to post letters, but he wanted his combs from Jermyn Street and his piano from Novello’s. In that respect, he could never put self aside.

Nor was he an ascetic. His vegetarianism, which he adopted at the age of 19 or so, was deliberately meant to make him lighter and purer; to make him approach “nearest to the Divine Nature” (Forman 2: 367). He wanted to cease to feel the weight of the body, along with the weight of thought and time. But though his teetotalism was almost puritanically impressive throughout his life, and his intake of green tea astonishing, his vegetarianism was hit-and-miss. In Italy, where he led an exile’s life for his last four years, his meals included fish, cold meat and even half a boar from the Tuscan marshes, on which his friends the Williamses feasted with him one day (Jones 126).

He also cared, of course, about his reputation. And that did not mean simply the posthumous renown accorded to his works, which he hoped might shine immortally, like beacons of truth and hope in the world (The Revolt of Islam Dedication, 118-26). He also cared about contemporary public opinion. He could not bear to be associated with immorality or shame, although of course he was. In 1821 he fretted to John Gisborne that some sort of grubbiness always clung to the noblest conceptions the mind could form (Jones 1: 364); and he lamented, when Epipsychidion was published, that people would suppose it was just about sex (Jones 1: 363). He flew speedily to get Mary to defend his honour when he was accused in the summer of 1821 of fathering a child by her half step-sister Claire (Jones 2: 317-20); and when Mary’s half-sister Fanny Godwin committed suicide in 1816 he may have done his bit to cover up the disgrace. [7]

His higher, better self was outraged that he should care about these things, or about his reviews, or what people thought of him. “Self, that burr that will stick to one,” he complained to Hunt in 1819. “I can’t pull it off—yet” (Jones 1: 108-9). But the reason he couldn’t was complicated. He wanted to be thought pure, as he often proclaimed he was: not only pure internally, secure in his own intimation of that bright-shining mirror of the true self, but pure externally, different in calibre and in character from the filthy world around him. And yet his very yearning to be so pulled him deeper into that “cold common hell, our life,” the world of appearances (Epipsychidion, 214).

There was, in the end, only one way to resolve this struggle. He knew very well what it was. As he writes in Adonais, “Die/ If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!/ Follow where all is fled!” (464-6). There then follows, two stanzas later, an extraordinary image of himself approaching death. He sees Light, Beauty, Benediction and Love, that “fire for which all thirst,” beaming down on him, “consuming the last clouds of cold mortality” (478-86). But he also, of course, contains that fire within himself.

And what then? What would really happen to the self, to Shelley, when he died? The body gone, what would remain of the individual, exactly? The question recurred all through his life. It made up much of his peculiar, insistent, breathless correspondence with a Sussex spinster, Elizabeth Hitchener, in 1811-12, when he was 19. What would happen, he asked and asked her, to the essence that was Shelley, to his uniqueness and separateness? Would he simply decay, like flowers carried to the dung heap (Jones 1: 104, 192)? Surely he could not; surely “these souls which measure in their circumscribed domain the distance of yon orbs” were worth more than that (201). Besides, did even the flowers die, or did something of them survive—their beauty, their thoughts (104)? The same questions recur, though now resolved into what looks like a system of settled hope, in Adonais a decade later. What has happened to the dead Keats? Here is Shelley’s answer:

He is made one with Nature; there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone.
Spreading itself where’er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his being to its own…


Keats is both part of matter, and he is part of the spirit or the fire that moves through matter. He is both mortal and immortal, part of the world of becoming and part of Being, which is eternal. His distinctiveness still colours the changing earth with the particular beauty he once found there, yet his essence is united with the One that is unchanging. As Shelley surmises, or hopes, this of Keats, so he hopes the same for himself—for Adonais, he admits, is as much about himself as about his young competitor (Webb 49).

But he does not know. He can only hope. The final stanza of Adonais contains both light and darkness, both courage and fear: the bad self still clinging to the good, the man to the poet, the last wisps of mortality to soul, even as he sails out on that great climactic journey. The Shelley who wrote Adonais could not do otherwise. He was mortal. And at the end, having gone as far as he could venture in leaving the bad self behind, he had to return to splitting pens, domestic rows, an obstreperous publisher, the indifferent public—and his own young, wondering face in the mirror, greying before its time.

Parties annexes