Percy Bysshe Shelley: Separating the Art from the Artist

Posthumous Portrait of Percy Shelley by Joseph Severn, 1845.

Posthumous Portrait of Percy Shelley by Joseph Severn, 1845.

The scandalous life of 19th century Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley rivals that of the most shocking celebrities of our modern age.  For him, art was all – even if the pursuit of that art meant the sacrifice of his wife, his children, and his reputation.

In 1814, Percy Shelley abandoned his pregnant wife, Harriet, to run away to Switzerland with the daughter of philosopher William Godwin and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft.  A scandal, to be sure, but while living outside the bounds of society – and of marriage – with Mary Godwin, Shelley produced some of his finest work.

On that initial trip to Switzerland, he wrote Alastor; or the Spirit of Solitude, now recognized as his first major achievement in poetry.  An excerpt reads:

There was a Poet whose untimely tomb

No human hands with pious reverence reared,

But the charmed eddies of autumnal winds

Built o’er his mouldering bones a pyramid

Of mouldering leaves in the waste wilderness:—

A lovely youth,—no mourning maiden decked

With weeping flowers, or votive cypress wreath,

The lone couch of his everlasting sleep:—

Gentle, and brave, and generous,—no lorn bard

Breathed o’er his dark fate one melodious sigh:

He lived, he died, he sung, in solitude.

Strangers have wept to hear his passionate notes,

And virgins, as unknown he passed, have pined

And wasted for fond love of his wild eyes.

The fire of those soft orbs has ceased to burn,

And Silence, too enamoured of that voice,

Locks its mute music in her rugged cell.

 

A second trip to Switzerland followed in 1816, this time in the company of Lord Byron and Mary Godwin’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont.  The couples took neighboring houses on Lake Geneva.  Their months in residence were particularly productive – both in art and in scandal.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint, 1819.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint, 1819.

Shelley wrote Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and Mont Blanc.  Byron was inspired to write his epic poem Don Juan.  And Mary Godwin began writing what would become her first novel, Frankenstein.  Meanwhile, Claire Clairmont had become pregnant by Lord Byron.  She would give birth to their illegitimate daughter, Allegra, in 1817.

Upon Godwin and Shelley’s return to England, Godwin’s elder half-sister, Fanny Imlay (illegitimate daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and rumored to have been in love with Shelley), committed suicide by taking an overdose of Laudanum.  As if this were not dramatic enough, two months later, Shelley’s heavily pregnant wife, Harriet, committed suicide by drowning herself in Hyde Park’s Serpentine.

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840.

Portrait of Mary Shelley
by Richard Rothwell, 1840.

Within three weeks of Harriet’s suicide, Godwin and Shelley were married.  Some biographers assert that the haste of the marriage was merely to aid Shelley in gaining custody of the children he had had with Harriet.  If this was the case, the ploy failed.  He and Harriet’s children were given to foster parents.

Percy Shelley’s marriage to Mary Godwin by no means settled him.  He continued to engage in affairs, fathered at least one more illegitimate child, and was known to take laudanum recreationally.

On July 8th, 1822, while sailing his boat, the Don Juan, off the coast of Italy, Percy Shelley was drowned during a sudden storm.  He washed up on the shore some time later, badly decomposed, and was subsequently cremated on the beach with Byron and poet Leigh Hunt in attendance.

He was only twenty-nine years old.

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier, 1889.

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier, 1889.

Artistic brilliance often stems from dysfunction.  As a result, great art is frequently produced by extraordinarily flawed human beings.  The very passions that drive them to create a stunning painting, a poignant poem, or a heart-wrenching symphony wreak havoc with their personal affairs.  Do we judge their art any less because of their flaws?  Or should we separate the art from the artist who creates it?  Let me know what you think in the comments below.  In the meanwhile, I leave you with one of Shelley’s most famous poems.

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

 


 Works Referenced or Cited

Bieri, James.  Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography: Exile of Unfulfilled Reknown, 1816-1822.  Danvers: Rosemont Publishing, 2005.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe.  The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Vol. 1.  Project Gutenberg, 2003.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe.  The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Containing Material Never …, Vol. 1.  London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1912.

© 2015 Mimi Matthews

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20 thoughts on “Percy Bysshe Shelley: Separating the Art from the Artist

  1. Vickie says:

    Mimi – this is wonderful – I love your comment about extraordinarily flawed human beings – and I agree with you on this, thank you so much!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed my article! It is really true about some of the most brilliant art coming from the most flawed human beings. Thank goodness art provides such a wonderful outlet for so many people in pain.

      Like

  2. nmayer2015 says:

    Great blog about Shelley. Mary and her daughter in law, Lady Shelley did a great job of whitewashing Shelley’s reputation. The things he did are rarely mentioned. I would be happy to overlook them if people would do the same for Byron. Sometimes it seems that Byron’s poetry is rarely remembered in all the discussion of his moral failings. He was a different type of poet than Shelley, yet he was a great one. His Juan is one of the greatest pieces of satire in the English language. IT was unfinished though he wrote it over several years. Someof his lyric poetry is in anthologies all the time. A couple of his poems have been the inspiration of music. he inspired a generation of men seeking freedom. Yet, it seems that his sex life was the only thing people ever mention about him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I’m glad you liked it, Nancy. And it is so true what you say about Byron. It was my point exactly with this post. I feel that the art (although it necessarily contains a large part of the artist’s heart and soul) must stand separately from the artists personal life. I hate to think that anyone would discard great works like Don Juan or Ozymandias merely because their writers were imperfect men.

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      • nmayer2015 says:

        I have a book — a collection of short biographies of English and American poets with selections of their works. The editor said he did not want to include Byron because of his immoral life – no such comments about Shelley or anyone else– however, he felt compelled to include Byron’s “She walks kin Beauty,” to mention His Hebrew Melodies and parts of Childe Harold such as “Roll on thou deep blue Ocean , roll, “which he could not kin all conscience ignore. I know some people would be astounded to learn that a poem of Byron’s is included in a book of Sacred Gems. Byron has many Biblical references and allusions in his works. He carried the Bible his sister gave him with him where ever he went. It was at his bed side when he died. He sent Allegra to a convent to be given religious instruction because he thought that best for her. Shelley was an avowed atheist. . The court refused him custody of his children on that ground even though at that time and place children belonged to the father.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Very interesting info, Nancy. When was the book published? I hope it wasn’t recently! It’s almost unbelievable to me that anyone discussing English poets could even consider excluding Byron. Do people feel that to enjoy his poems is to endorse his lifestyle? Unfathomable.

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    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I totally agree, Sarah. And thank you for the link to Smith’s poem! Of the two, Ozymandias has always stood out more in my mind, mainly because of the line “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” – which, as a young person, I found deliciously dramatic 🙂

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      • Sarah Waldock says:

        Along with sundry Kipling,Tennyson, Tolkein and Masefield it was one I could be talked into declaiming to waste time in English classes, because it’s one you can ask meaningful questions about to sidetrack a teacher. No, I wasn’t a good child, I was a combination of Hermione Granger and Just William.
        I’ve occasionally wondered if the line ‘…a sneer of cold command’ was a gentle dig at Byron, whose Corsair had ‘…a laughing devil in his sneer’ and was also pretty cold….
        it is a marvellous line, ‘look on my works ye mighty and despair’ and I recall saying it with as much gusto as declaring that ‘mighty kings of Nargathrond, and Gondolin, who now beyond the western seas have passed away…’

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Kipling has some incredibly quotable lines. And you may be right about the “sneer of cold command” reference being about The Corsair. Or perhaps about Byronic heroes? After all, Captain Conrad in Byron’s Corsair was the epitome of the Byronic hero. There is so much about the Romantic poets that I wish we knew for sure!

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    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I’m so happy you liked it, Anna! Thanks for commenting. Shelley is definitely worth a closer look. Not only did he write brilliant poetry, but his life was as fascinating and dramatic as any novel!

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  3. Brandy D. Anderson says:

    I enjoyed your article and I always love when anyone gives my man Shelley some much deserved attention. 🙂 However, I did want to mention a few things (you know you’re a Shelleyan scholar when…haha!): Shelley and Harriet were separated before he ‘eloped’ with Mary (and Claire). Was his treatment of Harriet pretty rotten? Probably, it certainly seems so, but he did leave Harriet before he became involved with Mary (although she was pregnant with his second child, so not so gallant there). Also, regarding Harriet, there’s a lot of debate whether or not she was pregnant by Shelley or someone else during the time of her death since Shelley had been gone for much of this period – however, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have hooked up at some point in the interim of course.

    My only other nitpick regards the mention you make of Shelley fathering “at least one more illegitimate child” — I’m assuming you’re referring to the Neapolitan baby. We really don’t know what the truth is about all that – it is fairly likely that Shelley was the father, it certainly seems so when you look at his lifestyle and some of the mentions of the mysterious ordeal in letters, but we really don’t know what happened there. Shelley also was generous to a fault and he did love a great social cause, so he could have just as easily taken it upon himself to find a home for the baby even if he was not the father. It certainly seems a bit odd, if Shelley was the father, that he would leave the baby to another and not insist on taking care of the child himself given that he tried to gain custody of his Charles and Ianthe as well as his own views on free love (he would expect Mary to be okay with this, naturally, ha!).

    Anyway, I did really enjoy your piece! Sorry for the comments, I do love to discuss Shelley, I just can’t help myself! 😀 I love your ending paragraph, by the way, what a perfect way to close this.

    Cheers!
    Brandy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks for the comment Brandy. No need to apologize for being lengthy! Your details are correct, but the whole point of my very brief piece was the aura of scandal around Shelley and his life. Despite the facts about who might have fathered Harriet’s second child or whether or not the illegitimate baby was Shelley’s, he had a certain reputation – and he still does with some scholars (the same as Byron, sadly!). My point was simply, for those who are offended by an artists lifestyle (using Shelley as a broad example), can you separate the art from the artist? Or does a scandal that you disapprove of impact how you view their contributions to literature or music or art?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Brandy D. Anderson says:

        Ah! Thanks for your response, and I think you did a lovely job exploring that topic of art versus artist. I always love that question, can you separate art from the artist? I think this question is also interesting regarding modern pop culture and the way audiences will either flock to or avoid a movie because of the publicized life of the headlining actors/directors. It’s particularly interesting when you bring ethics into the equation: for instance, simply not liking an artist/actor/whathaveyou because of their lifestyle is one thing, but is it another to boycott a movie made by Roman Polanski, for instance, a convicted and self-confessed child molester? Particularly when he’s not the only artist involved in the production, so then you would also be boycotting hundreds of other artists… Anyway, I’m going on a bit of a tangent here, but I just wanted to say I enjoyed your piece.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        I’m so glad you liked it, Brandy. And I feel the exact way about modern artists, whether musicians or movie stars or athletes – do their political/religious views or legal troubles or personal moral failings make their contributions in their field any less valuable? Just think about some of the poets we love so much from the 19th century. Imagine if their had been internet then, or tabloid journalism or television interviews! Would they have held up to modern day scrutiny? I find in present day, I often don’t want to know the personal details about an author I love or an actor whose films I enjoy. However, having said that, the lives lived by Shelley and Byron and Oscar Wilde (just a few examples) had an impact on their art and I think we need to know the stories of their personal struggles. In fact, I think knowing them as people actually enhances their art to an extent (if that makes senses!). It is a difficult line to draw and one that is always worth a good discussion! Thanks for such a thoughtful comment 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        The private lives of plenty of old masters don’t stand up to scrutiny; Caravaggio was quite vicious, and Gauguin was a child molestor by modern standards. [he was also IMO a rotten painter, but history rates him, so there you go]. Hitler was a moderately competent decorative artist, though you can’t exactly count him in with the genius group [he was a better painter than Gauguin anyway, but then so are most 8 year olds.] Whoops, my prejudices are hanging out.
        The point I’m coming round to, rather clumsily I’m afraid, is that if you burn art or otherwise boycott it, you are doing exactly the same thing people like Hitler did in burning books and art by people he disapproved of, and it rather tars one with the same brush as him. Which is why I picked his art to mention. Pity he didn’t stick to painting carnations.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        The personal dramas of writers and other artists from the past are one of the reasons I find them so endlessly fascinating. Yes, some were awful people, but most were just profoundly human and victims of the same sensitive & passionate temperaments that resulted in their art being so extraordinarily great. Ironically, I don’t feel quite the same about modern day writers and artists. Nowadays, I truly prefer not to know too much about their politics or personal foibles. I’m a bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz – I don’t want to peer behind the curtain and ruin all of the magic!

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      • Sarah Waldock says:

        exactly. I was inspired as a child by Rolf Harris and his lightning fast paintings with cans of house paint on massive boards, the simplicity yet complexity of the use of about 3 colours. I felt massively betrayed as an artist when the revelations about him came out last year. But I’m not going to let his perfidy spoil the inspiration I took from his very real talent.

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