By Newman Ivey White. Knopf. 2 vols. $12.50
IT would be difficult to imagine a more satisfactory biography of a poet than Professor White’s life of Shelley. It is complete, serious, and of an almost more than adequate magnitude. The product of twenty-five years’ careful labor, it will remain, as it deserves to remain, the most thorough, sensible, and well-balanced life of Shelley that research and careful judgment can produce. New materials may turn up in the future (the Esdaile papers have still to be thoroughly examined) and new critical estimates will be made from time to time, but it is most unlikely that so thorough and just a presentation will ever be made again.
In his preface, Mr. White sums up his new material as follows: ‘The diary of Harriet Grove, most of Shelley’s correspondence with his first wife, the true text of the many letters to Hogg which have previously been printed in a garbled form intended to conceal certain facts, the important letter of William Godwin on Shelley’s elopement with Mary, the surprising letters of Mary Shelley to Hogg in 1815, and numerous other smaller items were unknown to both Dowden and Peck.’ But he has more than this to add to our previous knowledge. He gives us a new and convincing biographical interpretation of one of Shelley’s most interesting poems, ‘Julian and Maddalo’; he explains, entirely satisfactorily, the mystery of Shelley’s Neapolitan ‘daughter’; he gives us an exhaustive account of Shelley’s effect on the contemporary public; and he emphasizes, in a fashion superior to anything previously written on the subject, the continuity and development of Shelley’s thought.
The temptations lying in wait for a biographer of Shelley are great; it is only too easy to turn him into an eccentric, in ideas, emotions, or character. Mr. White has made him an understandable and sympathetic human being. It is impossible to read his book and not to realize that Shelley was alive as few human beings have been alive. Every detail of Mr. White’s account rings true; to compare his description of a single incident in Shelley’s career — the relationship with Emilia Viviani, for example — with the descriptions of that incident in earlier biographies only increases one’s respect for Mr. White’s thoroughness of detail and soundness of interpretation.
Mr. White’s treatment of Shelley’s ideas and their consistency under apparent change is as sound, sympathetic, and wise as his treatment of Shelley’s life. As I have said, nothing so good exists in print. But one could wish that he had given a fuller treatment, either incidentally or in a separate chapter, of Shelley’s poetry — as poetry. To be sure, he does discuss certain poems, such as ‘ Prometheus Unbound,’ at considerable length, but he leaves a good many critical questions unanswered: it is the only respect in which Mr. White is uncertain, and — though I may be unjust to his intentions — incomplete. He gives a very full and interesting list of Shelley’s reading, but he does not really examine its effect on Shelley’s poetic technique.
How did Shelley’s practice in writing terza rima affect the sharpness of his imagery? What is the relation between Shelley’s portrayal of ‘beautiful idealisms of moral excellence’ and his considerable gift for violent realistic satire? What has the problem of the relation, or conflict, between these two sides of his genius to do with the problem of his personality? Was this problem being solved as Shelley’s poetry developed?
These are some of the important questions which one wishes Mr. White had raised, so that his great knowledge and admirable common sense might have helped us to a more accurate evaluation and understanding of Shelley as a poet. But perhaps the posing of such questions was outside Mr. White’s original plan, and it may be ungracious to ask him to solve them. He has, at least, given us the basis for solving them, and there is no question that his book, as a treatment of Shelley the man, will for a long time remain one of the masterpieces of American scholarship.
In accordance with Atlantic policy, Atlantic Monthly Press books are not included in the Bookshelf. Readers will find their presentation elsewhere in each issue.