Ghosts, I guess, are like eclipses. You have to go where they are if you want to see them. That’s the case, at any rate, with the ghost of Percy Bysshe Shelley, which is appearing now through June in an exhibit titled “Shelley’s Ghost” at the New York Public Library. And while I’m not a wealthy jet-setter, I’m going to fly up from South Carolina on a $175 Red Eye flight to view the apparition of my favorite poet (he vies with Yeats for that title, to be honest) this coming Saturday, May 19.
I encountered Shelley’s poems when I was fifteen and spent the entire summer of 1977 immersed in a trade paperback copy of his selected poetry, the first book of poetry I ever purchased. So it’s more than just the poetry that draws me now to New York. Shelley’s youthful idealism is glossed forever with nostalgia for my own youthful idealism. Mine is pretty thoroughly hedged about these days with skepticism, ambiguity, and moral exhaustion, but the sea enfolded Shelley in 1822 like a fly in amber.
My plan is to spend at least twenty minutes just sitting in the presence of the original draft of “Ozymandias,” paying homage, remembering what it meant to me back in 1977 and still does. If New York traffic cooperates, I’ll have four hours at the exhibit to appreciate the poet’s baby rattle, libertarian political memorabilia, fountain pens, etc., before racing back to JFK airport to fly home that same afternoon. Not exactly an impromptu excursion through Europe with two teenage girls, but, still, I think Shelley would understand. His ghost will have to.