‘Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned: now he knows whether there is a God or no’.1 So wrote a Tory reviewer after Shelley’s premature death. Cruel as the remark is, the reviewer accidentally lights upon the questions that had preoccupied the poet throughout his short life: is there a God and is there life after death?2
My new book, Eternity in British Romantic Poetry, considers how the poets featured, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Hemans, think about eternity in their poetry. None of these poets think about eternity in the same way, and Shelley never seems to think about eternity the same way twice. Shelley’s poetry and prose sparkles with philosophical and biblical references. Never laboured or exclusionary, Shelley’s work asks us to think with him, to trace the fluid contours of his thought, without feeling preached to or patronized. Despite Shelley’s soi-disant atheism (that we might more accurately characterise as agnosticism), it was principally in Augustine’s Confessions that Shelley found an analogy for his own struggle to apprehend the eternal. For struggle runs throughout Shelley’s oeuvre as he questions, imagines, and fears the nature of eternity. In ‘Mutability’, Shelley offers a sixteen-line meditation on the changeable quality of life. Rehearsing Lucretius’ ideas from De Rerum Natura, Shelley almost seems to sign up to the epicurean belief in the nothingness of awaiting us after death. But, with his typically subtle use of rhyme, Shelley leaves in play a dangerous half-rhyme between ‘quiver’ and ‘forever’ to signal a tiny stutter in any such agreement.3 Though constant mutability is what we see, Shelley whispers the possibility that we do not perceive everything that exists. The final line, ‘Nought may endure but Mutability’, smacks of an axiom. But its paradoxical quality keeps us alert to the idea that endurance, and by extension eternity, is possible. The line might claim a sort of triumph by finding eternity in mortality, but it might also furnish us with an ultimate and insoluble inconsistency.
In either case, eternity is so distinct from human life that it will not be reached by observation and sensory perception. Shelley would find another way into the question.
In 1818, Shelley translated Plato’s Symposium, where he found Diotima’s remark, ‘Love is a tendency towards eternity’.4 This insight sparked some of Shelley’s later thinking about how humans might come within touching distance of eternity. In Epipsychidion, drawing upon Plato and Dante, Shelley’s aspiring but self-undercutting poem dares to imagine a perfect union of lovers:
One hope within two wills, one will beneath
Two overshadowing minds, one life, one death,
One Heaven, one Hell, one immortality,
And one annihilation.
These lines prefigure the poem’s collapse. Within four lines, the word ‘one’ is repeated eight times, and Shelley, by placing ‘one Heaven, one Hell’ in a single line, forces an equivalence between the two states as ‘immortality’ comes under pressure to amount to ‘annihilation’. By ‘seeking in a mortal image the likeness of what is perhaps eternal’ the poem begins to disintegrate.5 Collapse is inevitable; though we might wish for eternity, we cannot imagine it, never mind experience it. Adonais, originally conceived of as an elegy for Shelley’s dead infant son, William, tries a new approach. Rather than settling into any doctrine, the poem ricochets from perspective to perspective, testing the nature of the transcendence and consolation that the elegy promises, and hoping for a heaven that Adonais can never quite reach.
Moving through grief, rage, pain, and betrayal, Adonais never rests in a single emotion. At one stage, through Shelley’s intellectual contortions, eternity, accessed through death, might stand for liberation. But we cannot know for sure. Plato’s Phaedo concludes that ‘either knowledge is nowhere to be gained, or else it is for the dead’, as the body pollutes the soul’s understanding of what is real.6 The final stanzas’ agonised contortions, where the speaker vacillates between welcoming the consumption of ‘the last clouds of cold mortality’ (54: 486) and admitting to the terror that remains with ‘Why linger, why turn back, why shrink, my Heart?’ (53: 469), see Shelley give voice to the human’s imperfect alloy of mind and body. Eternity is not fitted for mortals even as it becomes the focus of human yearning. We remain locked out of eternity, unable to imagine what we cannot know.
Shelley drowned on 8 July 1822. On the bicentenary of his death, we might reflect upon his closing lines in Adonais:
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.
(Adonais 55: 492–95)
Perhaps Shelley reached the eternity that he craved. What we are left with are his attempts to imagine, comprehend, and experience the ‘abode where the Eternal are’ in his poetry. The nature of Shelley’s life after death is unknowable to we humans. But what we know is that Shelley’s poetic legacy, his literary life, continues, two hundred years after his death, as we read and feel with the poet. Shelley has earned his place in the eternal pantheon to which his eyes were drawn.
- Quoted in Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974), p. 730.
- Immanuel Kant’s key questions were the same. See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans., ed., with introd. by Marcus Weigelt, based on trans. by Max Müller (London: Penguin, 2007), p. 634, B831, 832; A803, 804.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works, ed. Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Shelley’s poetry and prose is quoted from this edition. specified, are quoted from this edition.
- Shelley, translation of The Banquet, in James A. Notopoulos, The Platonism of Shelley: A Study of Platonism and the Poetic Mind (New York, NY: Octagon Books, 1969), p. 447
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 2, p. 434.
- Plato, Phaedo, trans. with introd. and notes by David Gallop, Oxford World’s Classics ( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 66e (pp. 12–13).
You can now purchase a copy of Eternity in British Romantic Poetry by Madeleine Callaghan via the Liverpool University Press website.