Sunday, July 8, 2007

July 8, 1822, and the Burning, Reckless Heart

The essay simply entitled "July 8, 1822" in Christopher Morley's The Powder of Sympathy caught my eye because I would be returning from vacation on July 8, 2007. When I realized it was about Italy, I was more intrigued, since that was my destination.

And so I read:

It is to-day a hundred years since that sultry afternoon when Edward John Trelawny, aboard Byron’s schooner-yacht Bolivar, fretted anxiously in Leghorn Harbour and watched the threatening sky. The thunderstorm that broke about half-past six lasted only twenty minutes, but it was long enough to drown both Shelley and his friend Williams. . . .


Morley was writing in 1922. It is to-day 85 years since that day when Christopher Morley decided to commemorate the date of the great Romantic poet's death by copying out part of [Trelawny's] description of the burning of Shelley's body on the Italian coast. Morley then offered some reading suggestions for those who cared to think about “Shelley and what he still means to us.” Shelley’s relevance 100 years after his death was a fair question.

Morley sends us all to Professor Firkins’s “Power and Elusiveness in Shelley.” Firkins taught at the University at Minnesota and was a critic for The Nation. There isn’t much trace of him left. The only online piece I could find is behind the mighty door at JSTOR. [I must get myself a key to that place.]

Then Morley recommends Francis Thompson’s essay simply called “Shelley,” “which remains in our memory as a prismatic dazzle of metaphor.” That’s one thing to call it. Francis Thompson is an odd, ascetic figure on the literary landscape and worth a post of his own. His Shelley essay is here. It is dense, baroque, brilliant in places, deeply literary.

Shelley’s work has, of course, inspired great passion from the greats. Here is Yeats: “I have re-read Prometheus Unbound, which I had hoped my fellow-students would have studied as a sacred book, and it seems to me to have an even more certain place than I had thought among the sacred books of the world.”

Morley had the advantage over us in terms of relevance. He was able to say: “There are those still living who have shaken the hard, quick hand that snatched Shelley’s heart from the coals.”

With no living hand for us to touch, who connects us with Shelley now? Here's what a search of high-authority blogs on Technorati yields:

• A quote from "Ozymandias" in a post on Spluch about the decay of cities: “it seems likely that at least some of today's cities will meet the same fate as Ozymandias, the king of kings who built a monument to himself. As the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, "Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away." Ozymandias is a favorite "go to" poem for the idea of the futility of manmade creations and the ego that goes with them.

•A surprising, and surprisingly full explication of Alastor on the group blog Everything2

•The todo following John Lauritsen’s contrarian book The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein—whose odious premise seems to be that there cannot be a genius 19 year-old-girl. (Mozart was 16 when he wrote the Salzburg Symphonies, but Mary Goodwin couldn’t pen a good tale at 19?)

It is a little surprising that Shelley didn’t come up much in the "Hitchens-Says-God-Is-Not-Great, but-then-What-Do-We-Feel-About-Hitchens" melee. Shelley was a political thinker, best known in his time for the pamphlet he wrote on “The Necessity of Atheism.”

In a sad turn of irony, a link over at Maud Newton’s tells us that Shelley’s final resting place is decaying itself. The Protestant Cemetary in Rome is falling apart, and is closed indefinitely. "Ozymandias" strikes its creator.

But on this 185th anniversary of Shelley's horrible death by drowning, "Ozymandias" is not the voice to listen to. It's Morley himself, in his closing thought about the poet and what he brings into our lives:

"Though lulled long ago by the blue Mediterranean, that burning, reckless heart survives to us little corrupted by time--survives as a symbol of poetic energy superior to the common routines of life."

And we'll follow Yeats into Prometheus Unbound to see that burning, feverish heart for a momentary break from our daily routine:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

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