Shelley: A Life Story

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Edmund Blunden
VIKING
THE first five chapters of Edmund Blunden’s book on Shelley are written in a prose surprisingly slipshod and cumbersome. Two sentences taken at random will suffice to demonstrate this. The first refers to Shelley’s expulsion from Oxford: “Wherever it is reviewed, few will judge that Shelley was not extremely unfortunate at so early a stage in an undergraduate’s life.”Such a tangle of negatives is enough to break a brain in pieces. Again, “Harriet and Eliza were unlucky in making their first voyage on the Irish Sea which drove their ship north, but after twenty-eight hours she arrived somewhere, and they went on by land to Dublin.” This is the kind of structure sometimes known as an “omnibus sentence.”
Had Mr. Blunden continued in this vein he would have found himself without readers. But in Chapter Six the style gradually clears. The final chapter is again inferior. Between these two sections lies the best general biography of Shelley yet to appear. The facts are set at new and effective angles. The people and landscapes are wonderfully alive. The criticisms are brilliant and — in a time when Shelley’s abstract manner of writing is in disfavor — warmly persuasive.
Mr. Blunden is the constant champion of Shelley and his poetry, but he neither withholds nor softens ugly truths. He emphasizes the poet’s masculinity in contrast to Miss Curran’s well-known and effeminate portrait, as well as Matthew Arnold’s phrase, “beautiful and ineffectual angel.” and substitutes the figure of a passionate reformer and altruist. Of course, in the light of R. M. Smith’s Shelley Legend, which was not published in time to be available to Mr. Blunden, many might conclude that Shelley was neither altruist nor angel, but the devil incarnate.
Taken phase by phase, there was nothing in Shelley’s life that became him like the leaving of it. That romantic exit had such diverse consequences as an inspired line from the Danish poet Holger Drachmann, and an accusation against Mary Shelley of using the poet’s incinerated heart as a bookmark. In life, Shelley followed the pattern of Greek tragedy in that he always started the machinery of his own calamities. Even Lord Eldon’s bitterly denounced verdict concerning the custody of Shelley’s children was inevitable. No modern judge would decide otherwise. However radiantly Shelley captured the grandeur of the human spirit in general, in particular his treatment of individuals ranged from fatuousness to savagery.
The excellence of Mr. Blunden’s book is shown by the success with which he manages to enlist the sympathy of the reader with his subject. He subtly undermines natural objections to abominable conduct, and in the end his hero-poet emerges from a soft glow to the full light of enthusiasm, which holds us for one enchanted moment without dissent.
ROBERT HILLYER