Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself Hardcover – Aug 28 2007
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*Starred Review* A vexing annoyance to his friends, Shelley's "mystifying metaphysics" has counted for little with recent biographers obsessed with his radical politics. But Wroe recognizes in those metaphysics the wellspring of great poetry. Consequently, her daringly experimental biography treats the external events of the poet's life only incidentally as it plunges the reader into an imagination that strained toward transcendent ideals. Complete immersion in Shelley's writings—especially his unpublished notebooks—recovers the surging convictions that once moved a Promethean spirit and a prolific pen. Readers thus sound the depths of a self-proclaimed infidel who devoutly adored the "World Spirit" and of a nature lover addicted to an otherworldly Platonic beauty. Contemptuous of the hell of Christian orthodoxy, Shelley nonetheless wrestled with his own demons, struggling against despair when tawdry realities crushed his dreams of justice and cursing sexual appetites that consumed him without satisfying his yearning for love. Tracing a particularly compelling strain in Shelley's work, Wroe limns a fascination with water—heaven reflected on its surface, truth hidden in its depths—that eerily anticipates the poet's death at sea. Yet it is finally not Shelley's death but his life—his imaginative and creative life—that Wroe delivers in all its perplexing brilliance. Christensen, Bryce
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Praise for Ann Wroe's Pontius Pilate
"Sublime... For a long time this book will remain the definitive study of Pilate."
--The Washington Post Book World
"Compelling, eloquent, and vivid... In a superb blend of scholarship and creativity, Wroe brings this elusive yet pivotal figure to life."
--The Boston Globe
"A veritable treasure trove of history, legend, fascinating information, and thought-provoking speculation."
--The Christian Science Monitor
"By turns enchanting, learned, urbane, nimble, touching, caustic, and playful... As a portrait of a flawed man caught up in the adventure of being good, it is both sobering and inspiring. As an indirect portrait of Jesus, it is unique."
--The Providence Journal
"Triumphant... It is Wroe's achievement that her Pilate, cloaked in infamy, connects at almost every turn, in his humdrum humanity, to her readers."
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"I arose & for a space
The scene of woods and waters seemed to keep,
Though it was now broad day, a gentle trace
Of light diviner than the common sun
Sheds on the common Earth..."
cannot but share in her astonishment and so treasure this book which Wroe, in the first sentence of the Introduction calls an "experiment," "an attempt to write the life of the poet from the inside out." Who would ever wish, one asks oneself upon finishing this book, to write of a poet, especially as visionary a poet as Shelley, in any other way?
Wroe takes a non-chronological, thematic approach to Shelley's life, using the Four Elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire as her poetic cicerones through Shelley's life and work, treating the two, rightly, as inseparable. I could go onto a lengthy disquisition here, but that is for Ann Wroe's coruscating and enrapturing narrative to do for the reader. Let me simply cite Wroe's own splendid evaluation of Shelley's pilgrimage through this world:
"One fact, however, lay at the core of all these histories: a fact so intrinsic to Shelley, and so precious, that he was unable ever to describe it. Each Shelley-character held a memory - disturbed, but not eclipsed, even by stark grief - of a blissful, momentary, controlling presence both within and beyond himself. This was what made him mad, if he was truly so: that he had glimpsed this presence while on Earth, and could not bear the rift between that reality and his existence."
After finishing this erudite yet bracing labour of love, one feels tremendously indebted to Ann Wroe. This book, to crib a bit from "Adonais," is a portion of that loveliness which Shelley made more lovely, and now Wroe has made lovelier still.
Ann Wroe has done something different with this brilliant book -- she has concentrated on the inner Shelley, the Poet & his work, utilizing a format more like an extended lyrical meditation on the man & the expression of his soul through his poetry. This isn't too say that the book lacks biographical or critical material -- Wroe's research & sourcing is impeccable & thorough, using Shelley's own words from letters, notebooks, journals, etc, as well as the poetry itself, as much as possible -- but her primary goal is the revelation of the man's spiritual & creative yearnings, his struggle for personal meaning, his efforts to make the immaterial & eternal somehow tangible in words.
The author succeeds magnificently, giving us a multi-faceted portrait of the man not only as creative source but as fully human, with fascinations & foibles that make him three-dimensional rather than a simplistic caricature. His explorations into the science of the times, his notebook & journal sketches & drawings, his fascination with fireworks & speed -- so many aspects of Shelley are shown to the reader.
The book is divided into 4 sections, named after the classical 4 elements: Earth, Water, Air, Fire. These 4 sections are further divided into shorter chapters, each of which examines one particular facet of the man. For example, one delves into the meaning & uses of Flowers in Shelley's life & work, both as poetic imagery & personal metaphor; another, his continued devotion to Astronomy, Stars, the Heavens; yet another, his studies of Alchemy & the occult, in many ways prefiguring Carl Jung's later studies of the same subjects. Along the way, we learn a great deal about the science & society of his day, much of it surprising to anyone with a fixed & unexamined picture of the Romantic era.
While Wroe is enthralled by Shelley's genius, she doesn't gloss over his personal failings & faults. This humanizes him, even as the book overall examines him as someone (or something) almost otherworldly, bound to this Earth by the thinnest of threads ... but never quite separated from the rest of humanity. For anyone who thinks that there's nothing new to learn about Shelley & his poetry, this splendid book will open your eyes -- most highly recommended!