I’m back from the Percy Bysse Shelley exhibit at the New York Public library, about as exhausted as I expected to be. It was only a single room’s worth of material, titled “Shelley’s Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet,” but, for me, well worth the lack of sleep, hassles with airport security, and subway travel it took to get there and back to South Carolina in a single day.
I re-engaged heavily with Shelley’s poetry before going, and that is probably as good an outcome of the trip as seeing the exhibit itself. I had never spent much time thinking, for instance, about his last, unfinished poem, “The Triumph of Life,” but that poem seems now very revealing to me. Many of Shelley’s hardships were his own doing, but the deaths of his children in Italy in 1818 and 1819 were not. I don’t know how devoted he was as a father, but this must have been a terrible period for both he and Mary. The portrait of his son, William, captivated me in particular. Three years old at the time of his death in 1819, he was the spitting image of his father, if the Amelia Curran portraits, painted from life, are accurate. As the father of a beautiful three year old son myself, fascinated by new turns of phrase and creative expressions from him every day, I can’t imagine how deeply the death of such a lovely child must have hurt them.
Mary, according to her friends, never recovered from the death of little William. But lines from “The Triumph of Life” suggest how heavily it all bore on Percy as well: “this harsh world in which I wake to weep.” The whole poem, of course, builds toward a theme in which all humans are deceived, worn down, and ultimately decimated by life. So the triumph in the poem’s title is not a good thing, in so far as the poem had developed at the time of his death. The literary critic Harold Bloom considered it evidence that Shelley had made a new advance in terms of poetic technique and style at the very end of his life, and that greater things were on the way. But the impression that I take away from this poem and from the biographical evidence I’ve seen thus far is one of a beaten man, beaten, as all men are beaten, by life. This marked the potential birth of real wisdom in Shelley, in my estimation, and the necessary end of visionary ecstasies. Had he lived, I think his poetry would either have stopped altogether or moved toward a bleaker realism.