chapter  9
39 Pages

Shelley

Shelley’s poetry is exciting and demanding, for a number o f reasons. In the first place, it contains a very considerable amount o f Shelley’s voluminous reading - philosophical, scientific, mythological, religious, and political. Secondly, it frequently attempts to describe that which is beyond description - a depth beyond depth, a height beyond height, a timelessness beyond time, a boundless space, all the features o f a universe which we can stretch to imagine but cannot satisfactorily find words to compass. Thirdly, it is a poetry which moves with great speed; its characteristic effects are not those o f logic or fixed clarity, but o f a changing sensibility confronting an ever-changing world. It is a fitting poetry for an age o f relativity: poet, reader, subject, engage in an endless process o f interaction which is at the opposite extreme from the lapidary symbols o f W ordsworth or Keats. And if the processes of interaction are relative, so that the verse seems constantly changing, this difficulty is compounded by the sheer vitality o f the linguistic technique o f Shelley’s poetry, the way in which his words are, in Coleridge’s phrase, ‘living w ords’ in a vital and metaphorical relationship with one another. The result is a breathless and often heady excitement, a sense o f movement which has been well described by C. S. Lewis: he speaks o f ‘the air and fire o f Shelley, the very antithesis of Miltonic solidity, the untrammelled, reckless speed through pellucid spaces which makes us imagine while we are reading him that we have somehow left our bodies behind’.1 The result o f this effect is a little like the feeling of looking at a Turner painting, where the light of the sky is reflected in the water, with the water itself shifting and moving, so that nothing is fixed, everything is in motion. It is not surprising that both Shelley and Turner loved Venice:

Lo! the sun upsprings behind, Broad, red, radiant, half-reclined O n the level quivering line O f the waters crystalline; And before that chasm o f light,

As within a furnace bright, Column, tower, and dome, and spire, Shine like obelisks o f fire, Pointing with inconstant motion From the altar o f dark ocean To the sapphire-tinted skies, . . .