Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert—
That from heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
—“To a Skylark,” Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1820
… Shelley’s life seems more a haunting than a history.
—Richard Holmes, Shelley—The Pursuit, 1974.
In mid-April 1998, I read Richard Holmes’ magnificent Shelley—The Pursuit (1974), the first biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley I’d ever read. I had only recently learned, as I mentioned earlier, that Shelley’s middle name rhymed with fish, not with fishy, the way I’d been pronouncing it since my first required reading of Shelley's “To a Skylark” in high school and had suffered a first-stanza collision with the word wert, a word that convinced me, first, that poets could just make up any old word they wanted to and, second, that poets were, well, not like Real Men. I mean, really, in our literature anthology the picture of Shelley (Hey, isn’t that a girl’s name? And Percy isn’t much better!) showed a soft-featured young man with long hair, and long hair in 1961 meant only one thing to my crude crowd and me: Queer. Shelley’s use of thou and thy and pourest confirmed it. (We were—I was—very, very dumb and bigoted in 1961.)
Thirty-seven years later, in Holmes, I started to learn that I could not have been more wrong about him—in many ways. Shelley, for one thing, loved women—oh, did he!—so much so that his percolating libido contributed to the suicide of his first wife, Harriet, and made Mary, in the last years of his life, desperately unhappy about his attentions to other women in their circle—and even to a young woman living in a convent.
He was also a ferociously curious and gifted young man. (Dead at 29, he never got to be even middle-aged.) His father—Sir Timothy—was a far more conventional and conservative man, and his son baffled him (eventually angered him) in just about every way possible. One example: In his first months at Oxford, Bysshe, 19, and a friend (Thomas Jefferson Hogg) composed and published (anonymously) a pamphlet they called The Necessity of Atheism. The Oxford authorities were not pleased and, after discovering the authors’ identities, promptly dismissed the two young men. Can you imagine Sir Timothy Shelley’s shame? His outrage? It would get worse.
Anyway, Shelley’s story began to interest me so much that I found myself engaged in my own pursuit, charging around to places related to him, places that had no real direct connection to Mary, whose life I was supposedly researching and writing. I’d gone off on a tangent—a detour that, like many other unexpected routes, traversed terrain sometimes more scenic and dramatic than what lay along the main road.