"Williams is captain, and we drive along this delightful bay in the evening wind, under the summer moon, until earth appears another world. Jane brings her guitar, and if the past and the future could be obliterated, the present would content me so well that I could say with Faust to the passing moment, "Remain thou, thou art so beautiful'."
Letter to John Gisborne, 18 June 1822. The Letters of Shelley, II 435-6
We all know what happened 16 days later; the past, the present and the future were indeed obliterated.
It is the anniversary of Shelley's death today, and i thought the best way to observe this sad occasion was to turn again to the enormous impact he had on both my life and my father's. Along the way, I think we will find much to reflect upon, and Shelley may perhaps seem less remote and more immediate - on this of all days.
My father's interest in Shelley must have started very early for reasons that will emerge quickly. And that fact that it did so inevitably leads my to conclude that his mother, Edith Wills, must have had something to do with it. She had an absolutely incalculable effect on his life. One of the reasons I know this is that shortly before his death I came into possession of hundreds of letters that he had written to her. She appears to have kept almost all of them. There is a generous sprinkling of those she wrote to him, but he does not appear to have been as concerned for posterity as she was. They tell an astonishing story - which is not for this post.
My father was born in 1916 in Montreal, Canada. Very early in life he exhibited an aptitude for, and an interest in, the arts. This came from his mother, and not his father. He assidulously studied music and was good enough that he was in a position at one point to chose a career as a professional pianist. But he abandoned this for the stage. In his late teens he was active in the Montreal theatrical community. Then he did something truly extraordinary. in 1936, at age 18 he boarded a ocean liner and sailed for England to pursue an acting career.
While he did not appear to have set the acting word on fire, he did seem to progress his career until the Second World War ruined his dreams as it did those of almost everyone else on the planet.
While in England he also took the time to pursue a passion of his: Percy Bysshe Shelley. I know this because I have an unusual little scrap book which I found on his shelf with the rest of his Shelley materials. It is a bit shabby now, but he appears to have spent considerable effort to put it together - beginning in 1937. I deliberately photographed the pages in a low soft light in order to create a mood appropriate to the occasion. Please forgive errors in this version of the article - it was somewhat hurriedly thrown together.
Here is the cover binding:
It even has a title page:
Now the term "Shelleyana" is an interesting term in and of itself, and I have been unable to find any "official" definition for it. It is used to refer to collections of materials that pertain to Shelley and his circle. It is clearly a coined term and I can think of no other example of it. There is an affectionate overtone; it strikes one as diminutive. It is even a little cloying. All of which is entirely in keeping with the manner in which Shelley was viewed by a large segment of the literate intelligentsia in the 19th century. I wrote about this in my article, "Shelley in the 21st Century."
Many people who held Shelley in high esteem had collections of "Shelleyana". These might be relics, or they might be first editions, or they might be rare or unusual books about him or those he was close to. For example, here is an article from the New York Times in 1922 extolling a particular collection of Shelleyana which was available to the public on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death.
My father always referred to his collection of books on Shelley as his "Shelleyana". And as suits the reverential, almost hagiographic overtone, which the term connotes, his scrap book begins with not one, but THREE portraits of the poet - each accorded its own page.
This is the most famous, even iconic, of the portraits. Shelley sat for Curran in Rome on May 7 and 8 in 1819. Curran was known to Shelley and Mary and they had last encountered her in Godwin's home in 1818. Crucially, this painting was NOT finished in his life time, and must be considered to be an extremely unreliable likeness. Shelley's biographer, James Bieri notes, "It has become the misleading image by which so many have misperceived Shelley." We know that neither Mary nor Shelley liked it - nor did his friends. The history of this painting and its effect on the way in which Shelley came to be regarded can not be underestimated, but this is not the time and place for such a discussion. Suffice to say that it played directly into the hands of those Victorians who preferred to imagine Shelley as a child-like, almost androgynous being - this is the "castrated" Shelley (in Engles famous phrase). The man in this painting is NOT my Shelley - but it was most decidedly my FATHER'S Shelley.
Here is the second:
Well, what can you say? Here Shelley has lost almost all of his masculine characteristics and the ethereal being the Victorians (and my father) so came to adore is born. We are getting very close Mathew Arnold's vision of Shelley as "a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain". Clint's portrait was painted in 1829 years after his death, and is known to be a composite of Curran's painting and a sketch by Shelley's friend, Edward Williams. And here is THAT portrait:
Curran's painting was repainted several times and each time, Shelley become less recognizable, more child-like, more androgynous, more ethereal. I believe these images of Shelley played a central role in the re-invention and distortion of his reputation. For example, here is Francis Thompson (one of his Victorian idolators) writing in 1889:
“Enchanted child, born into a world unchildlike; spoiled darling of Nature, playmate of her elemental daughters; "pard-like spirit, beautiful and swift," laired amidst the burning fastnesses of his own fervid mind; bold foot along the verges of precipitous dream; light leaper from crag to crag of inaccessible fancies; towering Genius, whose soul rose like a ladder between heaven and earth with the angels of song ascending and descending it;--he is shrunken into the little vessel of death, and sealed with the unshatterable seal of doom, and cast down deep below the rolling tides of Time.”
Francis Thompson, "Shelley", 1889
The story of the incalculable damage that these stylized images wrought, divorced as they were from reality, has yet to be properly told. But I think it is fair to say that had no portraits of Shelley ever existed, we might see him in a very different light today. I think that portraits like these fed a particular vision of Shelley that my father fed off. Looking into the eyes of these three Shelleys, it is difficult to see the revolutionary, the philosophical anarchist, the atheist that he was.
On the next page we find, not unsurprisingly, a postcard my dad purchased in July, 1937 in Oxford at the Bodleian. It displays certain Shelley "relics". These are: (1) the copy of Sophocles allegedly taken from Shelley's hand after his body washed ashore; (2) locks of Shelley's and Mary's hair; (3) a portrait of him as a boy; (4) his baby's rattle; and (5) his pocket watch and seals.
The idea that Shelley was found with that book in his hand is a story we owe to one of the most notorious liars in history, Edward Trelawny who for his entire life trafficked in stories derived from his association with Shelley and Byron - two men, both dead, who could not contradict his lies. There are certain element of his biography of Shelley which we can take at face value, but they are few and far between. But stories like that, when the become "relics" and part of "Shelleyana" feed myths. My dad was always fond of Trelawny - and Trelawny did my father the ultimate disfavour of serving up a vision of Shelley that was almost completely divorced from reality.
Next up, entirely predictably, is one of the great abominations in the canon of Shelleyana - the famous (or infamous) Shelley Memorial at University College, Oxford. The history of this hardly bears repeating. It was so routinely disfigured and disrespected by young Oxford students that today it is actually encased in a cage.
It was Shelley's daughter-in-law who perpetrated this imaginative, shambolic disaster. Not happy with this, she went further and commissioned Henry Weeks to reinvent Shelley as Christ and Mary as, well, another Mary. The resulting statute was, according to my father, refused by Westminister on the grounds of his atheism - if this anecdote is in any way true, I rather doubt his atheism had anything to do with it; more likely it was the monstrously poor taste in which the statue was executed. You be the judge:
it is now that the scrapbook becomes more interesting, for it becomes clear that my 19 year old father was engaged on a sort of pilgrimage, following in the footsteps of Shelley. The preceding pages feature postcards clearly acquired on a visit to Oxford in July of 1937; a visit clearly focused almost exclusively on Shelley. However, the previous year, and almost immediately upon his arrival in England, he traveled to Shelley's birthplace where he took a sequence of poorly composed but magical photographs:
There are thousands of beautiful pictures of Field Place; these are awful. But that is not the point. These photographs have a haunting, poignant, other-worldly quality. They were taken by an 18 year old boy who was enthralled by his hero, Shelley. And they take us back intime almost a century. He kept a very detailed diary of those years, and his thoughts and reflections in this pilgrimage are for another post in another section of this blog.
Dad also visited the graves of Mary, Mary Wollestonecraft, William Godwin, Percy Florence Shelley and the latter's wife, Jane Shelley. As he notes, "They are all in one plot of ground (barely sufficient for five people to die down)....One stone does for all." Interestingly, Mary had refused Trelawny's offer of the plot he had reserved for himself beside Shelley's grave in Rome. I have always found that curious, though none of Shelley's biographers offer any thoughts on this. Had she not refused, it would have been she and not Trelawny who is buried beside Shelley. This is, I think, a great loss; for more than one reason.
Prior to visiting Oxford in July of 1937, my father also dropped by Marlow to visit Shelley's home in that location. The pictures are somewhat clearer and he records the inscription above the dwelling which includes the unnecessary and gratutious lines "...and was here visited by Lord Byron." So what.
One of my father's favourite poems by Shelley was "Lechlade:A Summer-Evening Churchyard" so, of course he went there in 1936. In a chemist shop owned by a man named Davis, he was informed that according to local legend, Shelley had strolled through a particular path in the town composing the poem. The top photograph shows this path, the bottom, the neighbouring cathedral.
We now come to one of the more significant fabrications of literary history. The cremation of Shelley. Here is the painting by Louis Edward Fournier.
It is not for me to debunk the many myths created by one of history's great liars, Edward John Trelawny (Bieri does an excellent job in his biography of Shelley). Shelley was indeed cremated by the bay of Lerici. The body had washed ashore after 10 days rotting in the ocean. It was thrown into a shallow grave and covered with lime. It was only over a month later that permission was finally received to exhume the body and cremate it - and what they found was horrific - the body was "badly mutilated, decomposed and destroyed." Mary was NOT at the burning and Byron refused to witness it himself. This painting, like so many of the other signal components of the Shelley myth, was hagiographic in tone and divorced from reality. But to an impressionable 19 year old Canadian on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Shelley, it was as good as gold.
The Second World War then stole almost 10 years from my father's life, as it did for so many millions more. He was lucky to be demobilized quickly and lucky again to find employment quickly. He became a journalist and rose very quickly to become the most famous Canadian broadcaster of his era. I will tell THIS story elsewhere. In 1950 he secured an extraordinary assignment. Tour the world and send stories back to Canadians eager to learn about strange an exotic locales. One of the places he went was Rome and it will surprise no one reading this that he made a beeline to the Protestant Cemetery and Shelley's grave.
The photographs are poorly composed and either under or over exposed. But again, they have an intensity, a nostalgia and a haunting quality which are undeniable. So many things strike me. why did my father have his picture taken at Keats' grave and not Shelley's? He had very little time for Keats. Why only a picture of the tombstone itself? I have been in the Cemetery. It is an extraordinary lace and it must have been even more extraordinary in 1950 when the world was literally bereft of tourists. The photograph of Shelley's grave, in many formats, graced our home through out my life. My father curiously never had it properly framed or preserved - and the negatives are long lost. But I treasure these images, the more so for their faded character, there soiled nature and their shop-worn corners.
My father was a thorough man. and in 1986, as a vigorous 70 year old he made his way to the Bay of Lerici to visit the site of Shelley's death and his last domicile, the Casa Magni. Anna Mercer has made her own pilgrimage to Lerici, and her wonderful story, "In the Footsteps of the Shelleys" can be found here. He can be seen here, in one of his very typical poses, in front of Shelley's last home.
From his first pilgrimage in 1936, to his last 50 years later in 1986, my father was devoted to the man and the poet he perceived Shelley to be. While we could never find any common ground in our mutual appreciations for Shelley, which I wrote about in "My Father's Shelley: A Tale of Two Shelleys", I have come to realize that in his passion for Shelley, I am my father's son (and perhaps my grandmother's grandson!). I do not know if my father's and grandmother's love for this man will descend to another generation of Hendersons, but if it does not and if it ends here, it has be a truly memorable run. And were Shelley alive to have witnessed all this, as a man who believed that the world could indeed be changed one person at a time, I am hope he would be well and truly satisfied.
THE WIND has swept from the wide atmosphere
Each vapor that obscured the sunset’s ray;
And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair
In duskier braids around the languid eyes of Day.
Silence and Twilight, unbeloved of men,
Creep hand in hand from yon obscurest glen.
They breathe their spells toward the departing day,
Encompassing the earth, air, stars, and sea;
Light, sound, and motion own the potent sway,
Responding to the charm with its own mystery.
The winds are still, or the dry church-tower grass
Knows not their gentle motions as they pass.
Thou too, aerial pile, whose pinnacles
Point from one shrine like pyramids of fire,
Obeyest in silence their sweet solemn spells,
Clothing in hues of heaven thy dim and distant spire,
Around whose lessening and invisible height
Gather among the stars the clouds of night.
The dead are sleeping in their sepulchres;
And, mouldering as they sleep, a thrilling sound,
Half sense, half thought, among the darkness stirs,
Breathed from their wormy beds all living things around;
And, mingling with the still night and mute sky,
Its awful hush is felt inaudibly.
Thus solemnized and softened, death is mild
And terrorless as this serenest night;
Here could I hope, like some inquiring child
Sporting on graves, that death did hide from human sight
Sweet secrets, or beside its breathless sleep
That loveliest dreams perpetual watch did keep.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned at sea, 8 July 1822.
"Death is mild and terrrorless as this serenest night"