Saturday, September 01, 2012

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a jerk

Percy Shelley wrote the poem below for Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein for you info-maniacs out there). 

Love's Philosophy

The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In another's being mingle--
Why not I with thine?

See, the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower could be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;--
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me? 

Wow. Just wow.It was such a lovely poem I decided that I wanted to know more about the context, so I looked him up in my handy, dandy Norton's Anthology.  I almost wish I hadn't.

In Norton's I read that Shelley met and married his first wife, Harriet, in 1811. She was sixteen to his nineteen. In a letter to a friend he proclaimed that he would "love her forever." Three years and one child later he became enamored with sixteen year old Mary Shelley and ran away with her, leaving pregnant, eighteen year old Harriet behind. So much for loving Harriet forever. In an attempt to rectify the situation (probably massaging his own guilty conscience) Percy actually invited Harriet to come live with him and Mary as a sister.  Like that was going to make it all better. Come to think of it, I'm fairly sure I dated this guy's great-great-great grandson (he was a poet, of course--I've always been a sucker for a good turn of phrase).  That is until he fell in love with another girl (you know--while he was cheating on me), told me about it and in the same letter, invited me to the wedding because he still wanted me in his life. 



Sadly, Harriet not only didn't join them, she committed suicide two years  later (she believed erroneously that she'd been abandoned--while pregnant again--by another man she'd fallen in love with and the prevailing theory was that she simply couldn't handle it. The man himself was on his way back to her having learned that she wasn't receiving his letters. Unfortunately he was too late). To their credit, the courts were so dismayed by Percy's behavior that they refused to give him custody of the two children he'd left with Harriet.  

Percy's defense? He believed it was immoral to stay in a loveless marriage. That's right. Percy believed in free love. It it feels good, do it, that was his battle cry. And he went on to demonstrate this repeatedly throughout the rest of his short life, spending money as fast as his family could send it to him, moving from from one place to another as he racked up debts. Eventually he fell out of love with Mary (so much for loving anyone forever) and became enamored with another woman, who happened to be married to a close male friend. Ironically, when Percy was killed in a boating accident in 1822, this friend died with him. 

I learned that for a number of years historians did what they could to Whitewash Shelley's personal life, even going as far as to blame Harriet for his behavior. He was a famous poet, after all, she was only a woman. Blaming her was easier than admitting that their literary hero was a cad.

 While further researching this, I ran across an essay by--of all people--Mark Twain, entitled "
In Defense of Harriet Shelley " . It seems that Twain  had no patience with men who leave their pregnant young wives and take up mistresses. Twain's research turned up yet more affairs in Shelley's past and had many choice things to say about him (and the biographers that attempted to whitewash Shelley's history at the expense of Harriet's). Mary Shelley didn't get a free ride either--Twain took an equally dim view of women who run off with other women's husbands.

I love Mark Twain.  

In modern day terms, Percy Bysshe Shelley was a jerk (stronger words that come to mind, but this is a  PG rated blog, after all). A talented jerk, but a jerk all the same. I think sometimes it pays to know this about those people whose work we admire--that beautiful words don't always come from beautiful souls. That jerks can be brilliant and funny and still be jerks. Further more, this has been true since the beginning of time.



Debby said...

Yuh-huh. Lots of intelligent, creative jerks in the world. I wonder what Mary thought of Harriet coming to live w/ them like a sister.

It's sort of like when an acquaintance abruptly left his wife and child for another woman with children, and said, quite reasonably to his wife, "You should move out of our house, because I have more kids than you do."

jeanie said...

Oh yes - there are some choice tales in regard to Mr Shelley and his cronies...

Anonymous said...

I knew I hated Shelley for a reason! Also, he represented many torturous hours in high school and college lit classes. Finally I am justified. Yup - I hate Shelley. And now I'm fine with it.