A Percy Shelley Biography Essay, Research Paper
Every Romanticist is heavily indebted to Pickering & Chatto for their publication of a series of valuable sets of Romantic texts. From the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft (published in 1989), to the Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley (published in May 1996), and continuing with forthcoming editions of Hazlitt’s and De Quincey’s Selected Works, Pickering & Chatto continues to foster the study of Romantic writers with excellent scholarly editions.
Under the general editorship of John Mullan, Pickering & Chatto offers us a new collection in their series of Romantic studies publications: Lives of the Great Romantic Poets . This three-volume set contains facsimile reproductions of biographical accounts of three major poets of the Romantic period: Shelley, Byron and Wordsworth. Each volume contains a clearly-written introduction which presents an overall picture of the poet’s career and popularity during his lifetime. Though unfortunately limited by space considerations, the editors have succeeded in compiling intelligent accounts of the poets. A selected, and rather brief, bibliography of useful secondary works and a brief chronology are also to be found. Each extract of biographical writing is preceded by a short editor’s introduction containing details about the author, the work from which the extract is taken, and the relationship between the author and the poet referred to. These introductions are straightforward, with enough details to improve the reading of the extracts without overwhelming the reader with too many facts. I have to stress the fact that this edition is a facsimile reproduction of extracts from Romantic texts and not a scholarly edition of these texts. Thus, although one finds a few notes, one should be aware that the interest of these volumes lies mainly in the texts they make newly available to the public. In this, this edition echoes the Revolution and Romanticism series of facsimile of Romantic texts chosen by Jonathan Wordsworth and published by Woodstock Books.
The first volume is devoted to Shelley and edited by John Mullan. Mullan’s introduction presents an accurate description of the difficult question of the reception of Shelley during the nineteenth century, and then during the twentieth century. Mullan rightly points out how tempting it is to equate Shelley’s poetry with his own life, and how, to a certain extent, Shelley himself invited his readers to do so. This is obviously a question that Shelleyan scholars have dealt with for over a century. But, since these volumes are clearly aimed at a non-specialist audience, some basic information must be provided. The selection of extracts is good, with both a variety of perspectives (from Mary’s very personal preface to Posthumous Poems to John Dix’s ‘recollection’ of Shelley) and sufficient length for the reader to get a good idea of the biographer’s relationship to Shelley. I was pleasantly surprised to find an extract from Polidori’s Diary (all the other extracts are from published books) but it is a welcome addition as Polidori was a first-hand witness at a key stage of Shelley’s life. Similarly, Mullan includes Thornton Hunt’s article ‘Shelley. By One Who Knew Him’?an important article on the relationship between Leigh Hunt and Shelley rarely found in print.
Chris Hart is the editor of the second volume, which focuses on Byron. In his introduction, Hart insists on the importance of Byron’s image, both for Byron himself as well as for his contemporaries. The point is well-made by Hart, who re-contextualises Byron’s place in Regent society, and presents the reader with a clear overview of the intricate question of Byron’s fame during his lifetime and after his death. This volume has the smallest number of extracts from books devoted to Byron. Hart justifies his choice by stressing the importance of the biographers as writers as much as who they are writing about in his selection process. This is, in my opinion, the most interesting aspect of this anthology as a whole: the reader learns simultaneously about both the poet and the biographer. The intelligent editing presents enough of the sampled texts to provide a good sense of the poet under scrutiny, as well as a clear sense of the biographers’ own motives and individual personalities behind their descriptions. Thus, more than just providing a very useful collection of memoirs on three major poets of the Romantic period, this facsimile edition offers a fascinating insight into the minds of these poets’ contemporaries and their attitudes towards the poets described. To mention but two from the Byron volume, Leigh Hunt’s acid recollection of Byron in Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries reveals Hunt’s resentment of others’ successful exploitation of the Byron myth at a difficult time in Hunt’s life. Though the book became (in)famous very rapidly and is best remembered for its depiction of Byron, one should also be aware that it has some brilliant descriptions of Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, and Lamb too. As for the veracity of Teresa Guiccioli’s My Recollections of Lord Byron, it was, as Hart notes, “almost as seriously compromised by her vanity as it was by her late late-discovered prudishness” (276-77). It is interesting to note, as Hart does, that Guiccioli had an affair with the French Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine. Hart, however, does not mention that Lamartine would also write a biography of Byron. The fame of Byron was more international than one might think, and references to biographies written in other countries during the nineteenth century would have been relevant.
The final volume of the set, devoted to Wordsworth, is edited by Peter Swaab. Swaab has included a very large selection in terms of the number of extracts (39). He thus differs in the choice of his two colleagues (the Shelley volume has 18 extracts and the Byron one 10). I can understand the difficulty of the editorial decision: shall I have more pages but fewer extracts, or the other way around? In the case of Wordsworth, I would suggest that Swaab made the right choice. Thanks to Swaab’s sharp decision-making, Wordsworth comes across as an extraordinary figure and one reads the extracts one after the other with continuing interest. This is also due to Swaab’s amazing job of unearthing some recollections until now only known by Wordsworth scholars, such as Caroline Fox’s Memories of Old Friends or Rawnsley’s ‘Reminiscence of Wordsworth among the Peasantry of Westmoreland’. Of course, all the familiar and expected names are present: Hazlitt, De Quincey, Coleridge, Cottle, … Swaab has decided to include recollections of meetings which took place during the early years of Wordsworth’s life “partly to give a sense of the changes in his character and reputation, partly because Wordsworth’s consistency meant that the later reports vary relatively little.” The later reports do vary indeed relatively little from one another, though they do of course vary from the earlier reports. Swaab thus rightly focus on the changes in Wordsworth’s character and reputation.
As a whole, this set proves to be a useful collection of memoirs and recollections for students and scholars alike. Because it is to be expected that most readers would not easily have access to most of the books from which these extracts are taken, one can only welcome the sudden availability of these materials in facsimile for the first time. Sadly, the price of the set may prevent a certain number of libraries from acquiring it. This would be a shame, as this edition offers a much-needed re-appraisal of the nineteenth-century reception of these three poets and their biographers. As a concluding remark, if one wonders why Shelley, Byron, and Wordsworth alone were chosen to be the recipients of so much scholarly attention over other important figures from the period, it should be noted that a second set is soon to be published on Keats, Coleridge, and Scott.