‘I Find His Letters Startling for Their Immediacy and Power’ – Madeleine Callaghan Discusses the Life and Art of Percy Bysshe Shelley

To celebrate the release of Shelley’s Living Artistry, author Madeleine Callaghan discusses the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley and the shifting relationship between the poet’s art and life. 

Out of all of the Romantic poets, what was it about Shelley in particular that attracted you to writing a book on his life and work?

I chose to write about Shelley because the relationship between his life and his work intrigued me for the complex but compelling relationship between the two. This isn’t to say that other Romantic poets don’t have similar preoccupations, but I find Shelley’s poetry and drama to reveal a serious and self-conscious approach to the question of how the poet and the man co-exist in the work. Throughout Shelley’s career, moral judgements of his worth as a man (often owing to his atheism) had informed the way his work was treated, and continued after his death. When I began working on Shelley, I realised that as much as I wanted to ignore biographical fact in favour of some sort of pursuit of ‘pure’ art, I was doing the poetry a disservice. Shelley was profoundly interested in the ‘I’, the personal self and the poetic self, and this book is an attempt to think about the complexity of how the ‘I’ works in Shelley’s poetry, drama, and letters.

To what extent did the events in Shelley’s life influence his work?

One of the things that became increasingly clear to me was that there was no cause and effect, no simple correlation to be drawn, when considering the poetry and drama. ‘The poet & the man’, Shelley wrote to the Gisbornes in July 1821, ‘are two different natures: though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other, & incapable of deciding upon each other’s powers & effects by any reflex act’ (Letters: PBS II, p. 310). Shelley’s subtlety was such that he did not create any protagonists that would operate only as proxies for the poet, but he never feigned complete distance, forcing his readers to think hard about how to understand the relationship between biographical events and the imaginative work in a more universal than specific way: to think about the Shelleyan ‘I’ opens up avenues for thinking about the operations of the self in poetry. Epipsychidion is one of the best examples of this, where what can seem like personal joy and pain is raised into a far more literary and distanced form of expression by his allusions to Dante. But the personal is absolutely significant to the poetry, and what Shelley’s work shows us is the complexity of how life influences art. His work offers no simple model of how life and art interact that we can extrapolate. Instead, we are forced to think anew about how the poet and the man are connected.

Do you believe poetry needs biographical context to be fully understood?

That’s a difficult question, as every poem, or indeed any literary work is unique. I don’t think I can agree because I don’t believe any work can be ‘fully understood’ (as Shelley’s Defence of Poetry insists). I’m also loath to prescribe a single way of reading poetry that pretends as if it were true for every artist. Shakespeare’s work is not damaged by our scant knowledge of his life, and one of the speakers in Yeats’s  ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’ says of Keats that ‘His art is happy, but who knows his mind?’ Biographical context and its importance vary from poet to poet. This is why I chose to consider Shelley’s life through the lens of his letters. By setting letters side by side with cognate poems, as one weaves backwards and forwards between the two, I try to reveal Shelley’s characteristic ways of ‘writing the self’, and to arrive at a more considered judgement about his achievement in both forms of expression.

Was there anything that you discovered in the letters that was particularly surprising or shocking?

The most striking things were the quality of the letters, the depth of Shelley’s friendships, and the change of how he treated letters from his early to his later years. Shelley’s early letters to Elizabeth Hitchener are wonderfully alive, where his intellect and emotions seem to combine almost to overwhelm a reader. After their connection failed, though, he never seemed to write letters with the same intensity. Keats’s luminous letters are born out of necessity. His surviving brother moved to America; his sister lived too far away to see with any regularity; Fanny Brawne and Keats never lived together. These factors forced Keats to become a letter-writer of such distinction. But Shelley lived with Mary, was in regular communication with stimulating friends, and had long lost contact with his family by the time of his death. His letters do not and cannot reveal the same range simply because they did not need to do so. Yet Shelley’s letters are intimately connected with his poetry, and I find his letters startling for their immediacy and power, and the insights they give into the way he thinks about his art.

As well as the poet’s life influencing their work, do you believe that poetry and art shape the writer?

Absolutely. I have always admired Paul de Man’s insight in ‘Autobiography as Defacement’ that this is the case, and I think the interaction between life and art is deeply enigmatic, for poet as well as critic. Poets are never tied to what is, as art always slips beyond the grasp of any neat critical summary of its power. Auden calls poetry ‘a way of happening, a mouth’, and perhaps that’s the closest we can come to understanding the possibilities of poetry.

What is meant by the poet participating in the ‘eternal, the infinite and the one’?

In an early letter to Elizabeth Hitchener, Shelley wrote: ‘I have considered it in every possible light & reason tells me that death is the boundary of the life of man. Yet I feel, I believe the direct contrary. The senses are the only inlets of knowledge, & there is an inward sense that has persuaded me of this’ (Letters: PBS I. p. 150). Afterlife and eternity were a career-long fascination for Shelley, and he was keen not to be consigned to mortal, ephemeral life, but to write for futurity with an eye to eternity. For Shelley, as for Plato, eternity is defined as far different from the everlastingness of the sempiternal. It is an elsewhere unknowable to mortals, but one that remains vital to humanity, and Shelley, though unable to experience it, would not simply ignore it. This is part of the challenge of Shelley’s poetry, not only to the reader, but also to himself.

How much was Shelley influenced by the society around him?

I’m not sure I’d use the phrase ‘influenced by’. I’d prefer to call it ‘responsive to’. Like everyone, Shelley was a product of the society in which he lived, but what is striking is how far he attempted to behave as more than simply that. Shelley wasn’t content to think only of the present tense in which he lived, but he desperately wanted to improve it in his eyes by trying to inspire people to reject the conditions in which they lived. The Mask of AnarchyQueen Mab, and so many other great poems are clearly attempting to speak to an audience, but they are more than reactive. For Shelley, the poet moved between being a prophet and a legislator, or to rephrase, between having their eyes trained on the world beyond or an improved version of this one and working to change society. The privilege, for anyone reading Shelley, is to see a poet deeply invested in the world even as he aims to get beyond it, because this tension is what creates some of his most magnificent poetry.

For more information on Shelley’s Living Artistry, please visit our website.

Follow us for more updates and sign up to our mailing list