Shelley the pursuit, p.1
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       Shelley: The Pursuit, p.1

           Richard Holmes
Shelley: The Pursuit

  RICHARD HOLMES was born in London in 1945 and educated at Churchill College, Cambridge. Shelley: The Pursuit, his first book, appeared in 1974. It won the Somerset Maugham Award and was described by Stephen Spender as “surely the best biography of Shelley ever written . . . an extraordinary achievement.” Among Holmes’s other works are a two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge: Early Visions (1989) and Coleridge: Darker Reflections (1998); Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage (1993); and Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985), which Michael Holroyd has called “a modern masterpiece which will be seen as revolutionary a work as Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians.” Richard Holmes is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 1992 was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire. He lives in London and Norwich with the novelist Rose Tremain.

  This is a New York Review Book

  Published by The New York Review of Books

  435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014

  Copyright © 1974, 1994 by Richard Holmes

  All rights reserved.

  Cover photograph: The grave of Percy Bysshe Shelley

  Cimitero Protestante Porta San Paolo, Rome/Bridgeman Art Library

  Cover design: Katy Homans

  The Library of Congress has cataloged the earlier printing as follows:

  Holmes, Richard, 1945 —

  Shelley : the pursuit / Richard Holmes. — [New ed.].

  p. cm. — (New York Review Books classics)

  Includes bibliographical references and index.

  ISBN 1-59017-037-7 (pbk.: alk. paper)

  1. Shelley, Percy Bysshe, 1792–1822. 2. Poets, English — 19th century — Biography. 3. Radicals — Great Britain — Biography.

  4. Atheists — Great Britain — Biography. I. Title. II. Series.

  PR5431.H65 2003

  821’.7 — dc21


  ebook ISBN: 978-1-59017-570-5


  For a complete list of books in the NYRB Classics series, visit or write to:

  Catalog Requests, NYRB, 435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014


  The Pursuit



  New York

  To Helen Rogan and Margaret Amaral


  Biographical Notes

  Copyright and More Infomation

  Title Page



  Preface to the New Edition



  1. A Fire-Raiser

  2. Oxford: 1810–11

  3. Wales and Limbo: 1810

  4. Harriet Westbrook

  5. Irish Revolutionaries: 1812

  6. A Radical Commune

  7. The Tan-yr-allt Affair

  8. One Dark Night

  Illustrations: Section I

  9. A Poem and a Wife: Queen Mab 1813

  10. Three for the Road: Europe 1814

  11. Bad Dreams: Kentish Town 1814

  12. Up the River: Bishopsgate 1815

  13. The Byron Summer: Switzerland 1816

  14. The Suicides: London 1816

  15. The Garden Days: Marlow 1817

  Illustrations: Section II

  16. The Platonist: Bagni di Lucca 1818

  17. An Evening with Count Maddalo: Venice

  18. The Tombs of Naples: 1818

  Appendix to Chapter 18

  19. A Roman Spring: 1819

  20. The Palace of the Dark

  21. The Hothouse: Livorno 1819

  22. The West Wind: Florence 1819

  23. From the Gallery: Florence 1820

  24. The Reformer: Pisa 1820

  25. The Moons of Pisa: 1820

  26. The Tuscan Set: 1821

  Illustrations: Section III

  27. The Colony: 1821

  28. The Byron Brigade: 1822

  29. The Gulf of Spezia

  30. Coda

  Author’s Acknowledgements


  New Select Bibliography




  Section I

  1. Field Place (photograph by Adrian Holmes)

  2. Sir Bysshe Shelley (after the picture in the possession of Sir John Shelley, Bart.)

  3. Sir Timothy Shelley (Bodleian Library)

  4. Lady Elizabeth Shelley (Bodleian Library)

  5. Margaret and Hellen Shelley (Bodleian Library)

  6. ‘The Nightmare’ by Henry Fuseli (Frankfurter Goethe Museum)

  7. Robert Southey (National Portrait Gallery)

  8. T. L. Peacock (National Portrait Gallery)

  9. Lynmouth, Devon

  10. Tan-yr-allt, Tremadoc

  11. Tan-yr-allt

  12. Assailant’s target-view

  13. Shelley’s Tan-yr-allt assailant (Century Magazine)

  14. William Godwin (National Portrait Gallery)

  Section II

  15. Mary Shelley (by permission of Mrs Imogen Dennis — St Pancras Public Libraries — from Eileen Bigland, Mary Shelley, Cassell 1959)

  16. Claire Clairmont (Nottingham Public Libraries)

  17. Byron (National Portrait Gallery)

  18. Chateau Chillon and Lac Leman (Éditions Jaegar, Genève)

  19. Leigh Hunt (National Portrait Gallery)

  20. John Keats (National Portrait Gallery)

  21. William Hazlitt (National Portrait Gallery)

  22. Ramasses II (photograph by Adrian Holmes)

  23. Garden at Casa Bertini

  24. Beatrice Cenci, by Guido Reni (Gall. Naz. d’Arte Antica, Roma)

  25. ‘Massacre at St Peter’s’ (British Museum)

  26. Venus Anodyomene

  Section III

  27. The Albergo Tre Donzelle, Pisa

  28. View of the Arno, Pisa

  29. Sleeping Hermaphrodite (Museo Borghese, Roma)

  30. A page of Shelley’s manuscript of stanzas 47–8 of ‘The Witch of Atlas’ (Bodleian Library)

  31. Detail of sketch of Shelley by Edward Williams (Bodleian Library)

  32. Jane Williams (Bodleian Library)

  33. Shelley’s sketches on inside cover of Italian notebook (Bodleian Library)

  34. Mary in 1841 (National Portrait Gallery)

  35. Faust and Mephistopheles ascend the Brocken on Valpurgisnacht (British Museum)

  36. Casa Magni, Lerici (Unknown photographer, c.1870)

  37. Manuscript sketch of the Don Juan and the Bolivar (British Museum)

  38. Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1819 (National Portrait Gallery)

  39. Bust of Shelley by Marianne Leigh-Hunt, 1836 (Eton College)

  Photographs not attributed have been taken by the author.

  Preface to the New Edition

  This is a young man’s book. I completed it at the age of 29, the same age at which Shelley drowned in the Gulf of Spezia. It shares something of the recklessness of its subject, the pursuer and the pursued. I think it should remain like that. It is an attempt to write literary biography as a form of modern epic, in which speed of action, colour and movement, travel and the sense of poetic adventure, predominate over everything else. ‘I always go on until I am stopped,’ said Shelley, ‘and I never am stopped.’ I still think this is the essential truth about his remarkable life, which continues so vividly into the present day, a restless and demanding presence for each younger generation to encounter.

  Looking back after twenty years, I see more clearly the partialities and enthusiasms in what I researched and wrote, angrily rejecting much of the critical tradition, returning to original sources, and following Shelley
everywhere over his own ground through England, Ireland, France and Italy. I have described the intense, dreamlike obsession of this work — a process of trial and error and self-education — in my later book, Footsteps. I have made some corrections and reparations (especially to Mary Shelley) there. But I believe the political and philosophical focus of the biography, the sense of Shelley’s energy and intellectual power, his impetuous physical impact on all those around him, still holds good. So I am content, on reflection, to let the book stand as a true history of my time in Shelley’s company. Others wiser and more scholarly than myself will continue to correct it, and to that end I have included a New Select Bibliography of more recent studies, many critical of aspects of my own work, which I urge the reader to consult. But above all I urge the re-reading of Shelley’s poetry and essays, especially after 1816: no other Romantic writer learned, and changed, and developed his art so swiftly.

  The open-ended nature of biography is one of its mysterious attractions. No Life is ever definitive: it draws or rejects from past work, it reflects often unconsciously the concerns and questions of its own age, and it passes on something hidden to the future. Every serious attempt at an historic portrait of the dead will subtly absorb the milieu and temperament of its living author, however objective he or she sets out to be. This is precisely the strength, rather than the weakness, of its subjectivity. It is the vital element that Hippolyte Taine, the first great European theorist of biography, curiously overlooked in his efforts to define a ‘scientific’ genre of Life Studies, as a sort of human botany. Biography is only scientific in the sense that it is experimental: it tests one version of the facts. But all good biography must do more, must risk more, if it is to live for any time in the imagination. It must finally transcend facts and documentation, and risk an artistic style and form appropriate to its age.

  It is now evident to me that this biography, as I put it in Footsteps, was written by ‘a child of the English 1960s’. Nevertheless that happened to be a particularly fruitful moment to rediscover Shelley’s story, with its special explosive mixture of fantasy, poetry and radical ideas, so close to the passionate hopes and aspirations of that time. If the present age of the fin-de-siècle is a darker and less certain one, Shelley’s peculiar energy and idealism may stand out even more forcefully, a sharp flame against the shadows. What makes him cruel, and even absurd, may also gather a particular and poignant resonance. He, in the end, was a child of the European Enlightenment, and believed that the world could be revolutionized by language, and that fire was the element of imagination.

  Much has changed in Shelley studies since I wrote. The Victorian penumbra has dissolved, the shade of Dr Leavis has retreated, and Shelley is again popular with students, though his extra-curricular attractions remain — thankfully — high. A brilliant effort of textual refinement and republication has continued in America, under the scholarly leadership of Donald H. Reiman with the resources of the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library in New York and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Following K. N. Cameron’s pioneering work, much has been clarified in Shelley’s socio-political background. A new generation of literary critics has championed Shelley’s intellectual gifts, his ‘sceptical idealism’, and the glimmering metaphorical subtleties of his poetic language. Both deconstructionist and feminist critics have been drawn to his work, with often dazzling results. A notable, and properly maverick, group of British writers and scholars including William St Clair, Paul Foot, Howard Brenton, Claire Tomalin, Angela Leighton, Timothy Webb and P. M. Dawson have explored much that is new and controversial. There have been Shelley novels, Shelley plays, and Shelley films. A valuable scholarly survey and listing of much of this work is available in The New Shelley: Later Twentieth Century Views, edited by G. Kim Blank (St Martin’s Press, New York, 1991); and I have included a careful choice from, the whole field in my New Select Bibliography.

  Some things do not change. André Maurois’s charming ‘Shelley Romance’, famously entitled Ariel (the first Penguin biography of 1925), was dashingly re-issued for Shelley’s bicentenary. It was a book that I mockingly referred to in my original Introduction, as the cause of much mischief in Shelley’s after-life. I found myself in the ironic position of being asked to write a brief panegyric for the back-cover of the new edition (Pimlico, 1991). My feelings about Ariel had not changed, but I had come to respect Maurois as an embattled pioneer of French biography, especially in his Lives of Victor Hugo (1954), The Three Dumas (1957), and above all Balzac (1965), which have still not received proper recognition in French criticism. Disguised in the hectic persona of a blurb-writer, I therefore tried to fit Maurois’s early and influential experiment with the ‘romanced’ form into the larger development of Shelley’s twentieth-century biography. I reprint here what I finally wrote — after much misgiving — for it bears on the whole complicated question of how biographies grow ‘out of date’, and yet may still retain a significant literary presence.

  This remarkable little book almost succeeded in destroying Shelley’s reputation as a serious writer and poet for 50 years. Written in France in the 1920s, it is a sort of Jazz Age biography of the ‘bright young things’ of Shelley’s circle, narrated in a clipped, flippant, risqué style of unparalleled brilliance. Syncopating between fact and fiction, inventing dialogue, sentimentalising love-scenes, colouring-up landscapes, it traces the fiery and unforgettable young poet’s disastrous flight-path through a galaxy of ‘flapper’ girls, the two Harriets, Mary, Eliza, Cornelia, Claire, Emilia, and Jane, until finally quenched in the Gulf of Spezia. The great central period of Shelley’s creative work between 1817 and 1821 skims by in a score of effortless pages. Instead, he emerges as the enchanting Ariel-figure, a sexy spark arcing between the philosophic Godwin and the diabolic Byron, half man and half meteorite.

  André Maurois later said ruefully that he had written the book to ‘exorcise’ his own youthful romanticism, but instead had inadvertently canonised it for an entire generation. So Ariel is now an historic landmark in modern literary biography, as fine as any miniature produced by Lytton Strachey or Harold Nicolson, a classic reminder of both the power and the perils of the form.

  In a way my biography set out to destroy everything that Maurois’s stood for. But I now see that it was simply part of a much larger and continuing biographic process of bringing the present to bear imaginatively on the past. One day perhaps a new Taine will define a discipline, if not exactly a science, of Comparative Biography in which we will all have played a part.

  My own personal connections with Shelley hauntingly remain. In 1991 I was wrecked in a 28-foot sailing boat in the North Sea, but was pulled to safety with my two companions by an Airsea Rescue helicopter. Thinking again about the mystery of his last days on the Tuscan coast, when he saw visions and wrote the unfinished ‘Triumph of Life’, I briefly abandoned biography and tried another form of exploration, a radio-drama entitled ‘To the Tempest Given’. In 1992 I celebrated his 200th birthday by a more peaceful crossing of the bay of Lerici, in a small fishing boat out of Porto Venere, accompanied by my English rose.

  Talking with a younger generation of readers, I see how Shelley has become increasingly a European figure, a Dante among English poets, and an image of Faustian daring, whose writing and travels still inspire that primary spirit of adventure into a wider world of ideal possibilities. Nothing is so moving to the biographer as finding an old copy of his book in a stranger’s hands, battered and wine-stained from its voyages, its margins scrawled, its poetry underlined, its pages bent with maps and postcards, its cover bleached with sun and sea. I hope this new edition has such luck.


  Paris, July 1994


  There will always be Shelley lovers, but this book is not for them. The angel they seek can be found in the golden reminiscences of Trelawny, or the charming romance by André Maurois, or within those innumerable slim selections of Shelley’s lyrics whose contents have remained virtually
unaltered since the first anthology of 1829, a French edition in an olive cover. That fluttering apparition is not to be found here, where a darker and more earthly, crueller and more capable figure moves with swift pace through a bizarre though sometimes astonishingly beautiful landscape.

  Of all the English Romantic poets, Shelley was the most determinedly professional writer. Many years after his death, Wordsworth called him ‘one of the best artists of us all; I mean in workmanship of style’. By the end of his life Shelley had mastered and translated from Italian, Spanish, German, Latin and Greek, and had rendered several fragments from Arabic. From the very start he was a writer who interested himself in political and philosophic ideas, rather than purely aesthetic ones. In contrast with his younger contemporary John Keats, who cordially disliked him, Shelley’s letters and essays are rarely concerned with the subject of Poetry as such, and with the possible exception of Robert Browning, Edward Thomas and perhaps Allen Ginsberg, he has never been a poet’s poet in the true sense.

  Those celebrated late Italian lyrics — ‘To a Skylark’, ‘The Cloud’, ‘To Jane’, ‘When the Lamp is Shattered’ — which subsequently established his reputation among a sentimental Victorian reading public, and among generation after generation of school children, were never of serious concern to Shelley. For the most part they were products of periods of depression and inactivity, haphazard acts of inattention when the main work could not be pushed forward. Throughout his life, Shelley’s major creative effort was concentrated on producing a series of long poems and poetic dramas aimed at the main political and spiritual problems of his age and society. He accompanied these with a brilliant but little known series of speculative essays on more practical aspects of the same problems, sometimes witty and original, but always learned and controversial. One can speak of Shelley as a writer in the most comprehensive sense: poet, essayist, dramatist, pamphleteer, translator, reviewer and correspondent. He was moreover a writer who moved everywhere with a sense of ulterior motive, a sense of greater design, an acute feeling for the historical moment and an overwhelming consciousness of his duty as an artist in the immense and fiery process of social change of which he knew himself to be a part. Shelley’s lyrics were mere sparks in this comet’s trail.

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