There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, and at crises when I stand,
Say, on Ingpen Beacon eastward, or on Wylls-Neck westwardly,
I seem where I was before my birth, and after death may be.
In the lowlands I have no comrade, not even the lone man’s friend –
Her who suffereth long and is kind; accepts what he is too weak to mend;
Down there they are dubious and askance; there nobody thinks as I,
But mind-chains do not clink when one’s neighbour is the sky.
Down there I seem to be false to myself, my simple self that was,
And is not now, and I see him watching, wondering what crass cause
Can have merged him into such a strange continuator as this,
Who yet has something in common with himself, my chrysalis.
As for one rare fair woman, I am now but a thought of hers,
I enter her mind and another thought succeeds me that she prefers;
Yet my love for her in its fullness she herself even did not know;
Well, time cures hearts of tenderness, and now I can let her go.
So I am found on Ingpen Beacon, or on Wylls-Neck to the west,
Or else on homely Bulbarrow, or little Pilsdon Crest,
Where men have never cared to haunt, nor women have walked with me,
And ghosts then keep their distance, and I know some liberty.
I identify very closely with the narrator in this poem, particularly the third and fourth stanzas, though for me the beaches and marshes of the East Coast and the North Sea would be my place “for thinking, dreaming, dying on” rather than the Wessex Heights.
(The narrator of course is almost certainly the poet himself here, but one should never simply assume that of poems written in the First Person.)
This is for those who haven’t read any Shelley since they were at school (if then) – an attempt to show you a little of what you are missing!
Shelley is a great poet, yet all too often what should have been appreciation of his poetry has degenerated into criticism of his way of life. “With all his genius [said Southey, soon after Shelley’s death] … he was a base, bad man.” To comments like that, Byron (who knew him well) responded: “You were all brutally mistaken about Shelley, who was, without exception, the best and least selfish man I ever knew.”
But Percy Bysshe Shelley was difficult to classify. For instance, he was sent down from Oxford for “atheism”, yet his mysticism, underlaid by his platonic vision of the universe, makes him one of the greatest of all religious poets. In an early poem [he was hardly more than a boy himself at the time], he writes that
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
I was not heard – I saw them not –
When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
All vital things that wake to bring
News of birds and blossoming –
Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shrieked and clasped my hands in ecstasy.
This is the mystic moment. Yet like all mystics, he suffered moments of depression, aggravated by the knowledge that though he was so idealistic, such a believer in the innate goodness of people, he was “one whom men love not”. Read these beautiful lines, from”Stanzas written in Dejection near Naples”:
Yet now despair itself is mild,
Even as the winds and waters are;
I could lie down like a tired child,
And weep away the life of care
Which I have borne and yet must bear,
Till death like sleep might steal on me,
And I might feel in the warm air
My cheek grow cold, and hear the sea
Breathe o’er my dying brain its last monotony.
Look at the opening lines of these sonnets:
Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life …
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king …
Or read this, from “Ode to the West Wind” (Shelley was a master of the terza rima):
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
But if you read nothing else, read “Adonais”, Shelley’s lament on hearing of the death of John Keats. It is a long poem – 55 stanzas – and all I can do here is quote a couple of them.
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments. Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled! Rome’s azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.
The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and spherèd skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.
Not long afterwards, Shelley’s boat capsized in a sudden tempest on the Adriatic and he was drowned. When his body was washed up days later, it was burnt there on the beach, but his heart and ashes were buried in the beautiful little cemetery in Rome where John Keats and Shelley’s own young son were buried.
He was only thirty, and was writing lines like:
Worlds on worlds are rolling ever
From creation to decay …
The world’s great age begins anew …
Another Athens shall arise,
And to remoter time
Bequeath, like sunset to the skies,
The splendour of its prime …
Oh, cease! must hate and death return?
Cease! must men kill and die?
Think what he might have written had he lived even a little longer!
And when the darkness looms
we wander on our way
deep into the forest
and from the path we stray.
A lonely way to go?
I’m not sure I agree.
No lonelier than a bed
far from the nearest tree.
Not blocked from the agents
of Death or of Decay —
perhaps, we feel the Web
more than the fear of prey
as we stagger that last mile.
If we must part,
Then let it be like this.
Not heart on heart,
Nor with the useless anguish of a kiss;
But touch mine hand and say:
‘Until to-morrow or some other day,
If we must part’.
Words are so weak
When love hath been so strong;
Let silence speak:
‘Life is a little while, and love is long;
A time to sow and reap,
And after harvest a long time to sleep,
But words are weak.’
(from the Spanish of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer)
In the towering nave of a Byzantine temple,
by the light filtering down through
the stained-glass windows,
I saw a Gothic tomb:
a beautiful woman lying on a granite bed,
a miracle of carved stone,
her hands on her breast
and in her hands a book.
Beneath the sweet weight of her limp body,
the bed of stone was creased
just as if it really were made
of feathers and satin
and her face retained the radiance
of that last smile
as the sky preserves
the last fleeting ray of a dying sun.
Two angels, their fingers to their lips,
sat on the edge of her stone pillow
imposing silence on all
within the railed enclosure.
She did not seem dead;
she seemed to sleep
in the shadow of those massy arches,
and in her dreams to see Paradise.
Like someone coming on tip-toe
to a cradle where a child lies sleeping,
I approached that shadowy
corner of the nave.
For a moment I gazed at her,
at the soft radiance, and at
the bed of stone which offered next to her
another empty place beside the wall,
and within my soul
the thirst for the infinite rose up once more,
the desire for that life in death
compared to which the centuries are but a moment …
* * *
Weary of the daily battle
I wage simply to survive,
I remember sometimes, with longing,
that dark, hidden corner.
I picture that pale
mute woman, and I murmur:
“Oh, what a silent love is the love of death!
And what a peaceful sleep the sleep of the grave!”
I would like to send you something very small
that you could carry with you always, no trouble at all.
I would like to write something you could learn by heart
without even trying and never forget.
I would give you something you already have
that you would keep for the rest of your life, that isn’t mine to give.
I would wish you enough time, enough space,
a strong heart, good spirits, a safe place.
But if you turn out to be left-handed, if you suspect your name
may not be your real name,
If you can hear the cry of bats, if you can dowse
for water, if your dreams belong to somebody else,
If when you stand at the tide’s edge looking out to sea
you hear them calling to you, then you must come to me.
Put your hand in mine. I’ll say,
It’s all right. It’s possible. We go this way.
He arrives too late to tell him how it will be.
Oscar is gone. Alone, he orders hock,
sips in the style of an earlier century
in glamorous mirrors under the clocks.
He would like to live then now, suddenly find
himself early, nod to Harris and Shaw;
then sit alone at his table, biding his time
till the Lord of Language stands at the door.
So tall. Breathing. He is the boy who fades away
as Oscar laughingly draws up a chair.
A hundred years on he longs at the bar to say
Dear, I know where you’re going. Don’t go there.
But pays for his drink, still tasting the wine’s sweet fruit,
and leaves. It matters how everyone dies,
he thinks, half-smiles at an older man in a suit
who stares at his terrible, wonderful eyes.
I haled me a woman from the street,
Shameless, but oh so fair!
I bade her sit in the model’s seat
And I painted her sitting there.
I hid all trace of her heart unclean;
I painted a babe at her breast;
I painted her as she might have been
If the Worst had been the Best.
She laughed at my picture and went away.
Then came, with a knowing nod,
A connoisseur, and I heard him say,
“‘Tis Mary, the Mother of God.”
So I painted a halo round her hair,
And I sold her and took my fee,
And she hangs in the church of Saint Hillaire,
Where you and all may see.