Monday, January 17, 2011

an over-excited brain, kept in continual action

Enjoyment recently with Edward John Trelawny's Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author, a gossipy, wayward, autobiographical book by a moustach'd Romantic who tracked down both poets in 1822 and stayed with them for a while by the Mediterranean. He was still there when Shelley died, and alert enough to rescue the poet's unburnt heart from his funeral pyre. The seaside cremation, though romantic on paper, was not a romantic gesture; the body had to be carried from the shoreline, where it was found, to Rome for burial, and the authorities, fearing infectious disease, weren't going to let them travel through the countryside with an intact corpse.

"In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace," Trelawny writes, "my hand was severely burnt; and had anyone seen me do the act I should have been put into quarantine." The heart was passed on to Mary Shelley, who wrapped it in a copy of her husband's Adonaïs and deposited it in a box on her desk.

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He hath awakened from the dream of life
'Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit's knife
Invulnerable nothings.-- We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

It's Trelawny's biases and his breezy style that make the book interesting -- his willingness to exaggerate an anecdote -- to lie and invent -- his preference for Shelley over Byron, who disappoints him with flippancy and cynicism.

Byron's wit or humour might force a grim smile, or hollow laugh, from the standers by, but they savoured more of pain than playfulness, and made you dissatisfied with yourself and him. When I left his gloomy hall and the echoes of the heavy iron-plated door died away, I could hardly refrain from shouting with joy as I hurried along the broad-flagged terrace which overhangs the pleasant river, cheered on my course by the cloudless sky, soft air, and fading light, which close an Italian day.

Byron stays Byron, but Shelley is quickly transformed into The Poet.

Events not worth narrating in the lives of ordinary men are interesting as regards our Poet; they illustrate the character and the workings of an over-excited brain, kept in continual action by a fervid imagination and metaphysical studies.

Which tickled me massively.

The Poet, hearing his name -- for all his senses were marvellously acute -- glided into the room, with his boyish face and radiant expression. He seized some bread and grapes ...

The Poet vanished, and tea appeared.

The Poet in this book is often coupled with food. Either he is gliding in and seizing it, or else he is forgetting to eat it.

If food were near him he ate it, if not he fasted, and it was after long fasts that he suffered from spasms.

Dreamy genius, he sits in a glade.

"Hello, come in"

"Is this your study?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered, "and these trees are my books -- they tell no lies. In composing one's faculties must not be divided; in a house there is no solitude; a door shutting, a footstep heard, a bell ringing, a voice, causes an echo in your brain and dissolves your visions."

I said: "Here you have the river rushing by you, the birds chattering and the beasts bellowing."

He answered; "The river flows by like Time, and all the sounds of Nature harmonize; they soothe: it is only the human animal that is discordant with Nature and disturbs me."

I sympathise. In the background right now someone is running a television, and all I can hear is that television. I should go out into the desert and plant myself in a wash. So it's disappointing when Trelawny starts to insert the Poet's letters into his story and we discover that the dreamy one is rather polite and self-conscious in prose, and not nearly as interesting --

We see the Williams every day and my regard for them is every day increased; I hardly know which one I like best, but I know Jane is your favourite.

-- as slapdash Byron in his letters.

You will have heard of our journeys and escapes, and so forth,-- perhaps with some exaggeration; but it is all very well now, and I have been some time in Greece, which is in as good a state as could be expected considering circumstances. But I will not plague you with politics -- war -- or earthquakes, though we have had a rather smart one three nights ago …


  1. I suppose I am grim and cynical (I've never realised before that I am actually Byronic) but the portrait of Shelley here -'The Poet, hearing his name -- for all his senses were marvellously acute -- glided into the room, with his boyish face and radiant expression' - evokes no-one except Fotherington Thomas for me. The book sounds brilliant.

  2. It would be even more brilliant if Trelawny hadn't had a grudge against women at the time he was writing it. His marriage was falling apart, and his descriptions of Mary Shelley tend to be patronising or bitter. He'd been a good friend to her while she was alive, but she'd been dead for years by the time Records was published in the late 1850s, therefore he takes the opportunity to get snippy about Wives and Women and their lack of poetic feeling. Everything else is wonderful, though, and it's good to see Leigh Hunt through the eyes of someone other than Dickens. Hunt is "a gentleman," says Byron, "with a taint of cockneyism," and his children run around over the Italian marble staircases of the poetic residence, "dirtier and more mischievous than Yahoos."

    Shelley is very Fothering Thomas. Give him a charming tree or a twinkling sea and he's happy.