A new Norton edition of Shelley’s Poetry and Prose has me thinking
A few days ago I made notice of the accuracy of Poe’s appraisal of Shelley. It was still fresh in my mind when I heard that it’s time to spend more money a new edition. I should be collecting books on writing, because there are a few important things I need, but I’m drawn into Shelley in a way I can’t explain. I’m way past loving the way he did, or dying young, but the power of his expression just resonates with me. I suppose to more “mature” scholars, Shelley might be a guilty pleasure, like Dali, who attracts the youthful and then ultimately dissapoints, as our scope is broadened. Sometimes though, first impressions are best. Shelley was all about the futile quest to love life, when the reality of life so frequently disappoints.
I’ve been circling like Gerard Manley Hopkins Windhover, waiting to “gash gold-vermilion” reading Poe, Melville, Baudelaire, and Ovid, before returning again to Shelley. I just can’t stay away. As Poe said, what seems to be “the diffuseness of one idea, is really the conglomerate concision of many.” Increasingly, I read Ovid to find the mother lode of images that Shelley mined. And it starts in the oddest ways.
I couldn’t stop thinking about water fleas, Daphnia. I used to study them under the microscope when I was a kid. I feel like a Daphnia these days. Wheels churning inside me, in constant view of those who might pass through here. My skin is transparent. My thoughts and concerns are easy to see. There’s a heart in there, beating strongly and churning as I gather up all the smaller things around me to consume. I’m in a small pond. It could dry up any second leaving nothing but calcium to turn into petrified chalk.
I realized that I didn’t really know the story of Apollo and Daphne. So I turned to Ovid, and found that it was a bittersweet love story. Apollo pursued her, while Daphne did not return his love. She prayed to be transformed, dissolved, to disappear, to lose her form so that no one would pursue her. She became a laurel tree. Even still, Apollo was not deterred.
Apollo loves her still; he leans against
the trunk; he feels the heart that beats beneath
the new made bark; within his arms he clasps
the branches as if they were human limbs;
and his lips kiss the wood, but still it shrinks
from his embrace, at which he cries “But since
you cannot be my wife, you’ll be my tree.
O laurel, I shall always wear your leaves
. . .
And even as my head is ever young,
and my hair is ever long, may you, unshorn,
wear your leaves, too, forever; never lose
that loveliness, o laurel, which is yours!”
I read this a week ago, but now, it takes on a new meaning as I revisited Alastor tonight.
It becomes another piece in the cascade of conglomerate concision. A while ago, I wrote about my epiphany about Echo and Narcissus. It provided new depth to Shelley’s images of echoing caves, always underneath pine trees, thought by many scholars to be Shelley’s symbol for the perseverance of man. Given the discovery of the image, recurrent in many poets including Gray and Milton, it seems to be a somber gesture of futility and mourning. The image is found in Alastor, near the end of the poem with what becomes startling clarity and concision when it is combined with the story of yet another pair of frustrated lovers, Daphne and Apollo. Shelley takes Ovid’s tales and just cubes them, folding them upon themselves and adding his own.
Yet the grey precipice and solemn pine
And torrent, were not all; — one silent nook
Was there. Even on the edge of the vast mountain,
Upheld by knotty roots and fallen rocks,
It overlooked on its serenity
The dark earth, and the bending vault of stars.
It was a tranquil spot, that seemed to smile
Even in the lap of horror. Ivy clasped
The fissured stones with its entwining arms,
And did embower with leaves for ever green,
And berries dark, the smooth and even space
Of its inviolated floor, and here
The children of the autumnal whirlwind bore,
In wanton sport, those bright leaves, whose decay,
Red, yellow, or etherially pale,
Rivals the pride of summer. ‘Tis the haunt
Of every gentle wind, whose breath can teach
The wilds to love tranquility. One step,
One human step alone, has ever broken
The stillness of its solitude: — one voice
Alone inspired its echoes . . .
Alastor is the story of a poet who chases a woman and ends tragically and in ruin, and in its images are the echoes of not just one, but two other tragic tales. The futility of love just couldn’t be hammered in your face any stronger. It’s a tumultuous group of images, a “woe too deep for tears,” as Shelley even cites Wordsworth in the end. But there is a power there, a compelling power of poetic images.
Its motions, render up its majesty,
Scatter its music on the unfeeling storm,
And to damp leaves and blue cavern mould,
Nurse of rainbow flowers and branching moss,
Commit the colors of that varying cheek,
That snowy breast, those dark and drooping eyes.
The power and evergreen futility of love permeates the brain. Beauty in lap of horror, mutability of all things except the lone voice that echoes in the caves rips into me. For some reason, tonight I feel like I spent some time rolling in those leaves, and they are piled deep. I get drunk on this stuff, I’m sorry. Thank you for your indulgence, perhaps there’s just too much Shelley in me. Sorry to be so transparent, but some feelings, and moments, must be fixed.