Live fast; die young: Shelley, Shakespeare, and Free Love

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Exhibition Bodleian Library until 27 March 2011

To the Bodleian Library on Saturday to see the Shelley’s Ghost exhibition.


Percy Bysshe Shelley lived fast and died young (drowned at the pathetically young age of thirty). The exhibition traces through books, papers, and actual objects Shelley’s short-lived, dramatic life, and its lasting impact. We learn about his influence, his infamous profile (including his atheism and free attitudes towards sex), and the desire to preserve his memory by those who were closest to him.

And it’s inevitably, obliquely, about Shakespeare, too.

Shelley imbibed Shakespeare from an early age and digested the Shakespearian sound and sensibility into his own poetic and dramatic forms, as well as his personal correspondence. Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, and (perhaps surprisingly) Timon of Athens were especially important to him. An early politically charged work, Queen Mab, associates itself with Mercutio’s impromptu, nightmarish fantasy in Romeo and Juliet. There is, too, a wonderful dialogue between Shelley and Lord Byron about Hamlet, possibly transcribed by Mary Shelley, in which the two disagree. Shelley argues his case and, by the end, Byron has fallen asleep.

But it was The Tempest that most caught my attention in the exhibition. There is on display a guitar which he presented to Jane Williams in 1822. With it he included a poem based on The Tempest in which he apparently casts Jane and her husband as Miranda and Ferdinand and himself as Ariel. It’s not an easy poem to find, so I’m quoting it in full at the end of the blog as transcribed for the exhibition from Shelley’s manuscript. ‘With a guitar. To Jane’ is just over 500 words long, but it’s a quick and delightful read. It’s a beautiful lyric in many ways, characteristically achieving great effects with an intense rhyming sound across short lines. Shelley excelled in this. In his excellent account, Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination (1986), Jonathan Bate says ‘the poem is as fine an improvisation on The Tempest as Browning’s ‘Caliban on Setebos’ or Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror.’

I couldn’t help thinking, though, as I read it in the exhibition that what I was really reading was a thinly codified love-letter. Ariel’s spiritual intimacy has little to do with Miranda in Shakespeare’s play, but for Shelley it is something long-standing, loyal, and totally devoted. Jane it seems to me was no less than the muse with whom Shelley was very much in love.

Shelley’s Ghost is expertly curated by Stephen Hebron and presented in collaboration with The New York Public Library. If you can possibly visit the Bodleian before the exhibition closes on Sunday 27 March, then I urge you to go. If you can’t then treat yourself to half an hour’s browsing through the excellent website that accompanies it:

Leaving the exhibition, I noticed a tree on the High thick with blossom. Ariel’s melody came back to me:

Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.
(The Tempest, 5.1.93-4)

Shelley found his own way of being free, and I think it’s clear he found that in part through The Tempest, his own defence of free love as well as of poetry.

With a guitar. To Jane.

Ariel to Miranda; – Take
This slave of music for the sake
Of him who is the slave of thee;
And teach it all the harmony,
In which thou can’st, & only thou,
Make the delighted spirit glow,
’Till joy denies itself again
And too intense is turned to pain;
For by permission & command
Of thine own prince Ferdinand
Poor Ariel sends this silent token
Of more than ever can be spoken;
Your guardian spirit Ariel, who
From life to life must still pursue
Your happiness, for thus alone
Can Ariel ever find his own;
From Prospero’s enchanted cell,
As the mighty verses tell,
To the throne of Naples he
Lit you o’er the trackless sea,
Flitting on, your prow before,
Like a living meteor.
When you die, the silent Moon
In her interlunar swoon
Is not darker sadder in her cell
Than deserted Ariel;
When you live again on Earth
Like an unseen Star of birth
Ariel guides you oer the sea
Of life from your nativity;
Many changes have been run
Since Ferdinand & you begun
Your course of love, & Ariel still
Has tracked your steps & served your will.
Now, in humbler, happier lot
This is all remembered not;
And now, alas! the poor sprite is
Imprisoned for some fault of his
In a body like a grave. –
From you, he only dares to crave
For his service & his sorrow
A smile to day, a song tomorrow.

The artist who this idol wrought
To echo all harmonious thought
Felled a tree, while on the steep
The woods were in their winter sleep
Rocked in that repose divine
On the sweet-swept Apennine;
And dreaming, some of autumn past
And some of spring approaching fast,
And some of April buds & showers
And some of songs in July bowers
And all of love, – & so this tree –
O that such our death should be –
Died in sleep & felt no pain
To live in happier form again,
From which, beneath Heaven’s fairest star,
The artist wrought this lovéd guitar,
And taught it justly to reply
To all who question skilfully
In language gentle as thine own;
Whispering in ea enamoured tone
Sweet oracles of woods & dells
And summer winds in sylvan cells
For it had learnt all harmonies
Of the plains and of the skies,
Of the forests & the mountains,
And the many-voiced fountains,
The clearest echoes of the hills,
The softest notes of falling rills,
The melodies of birds & bees,
The murmuring of summer seas,
And pattering rain & breathing dew
And airs of evening; – and it knew
That seldom heard mysterious sound,
Which, driven on its diurnal round
As it floats through boundless day
Our world enkindles on its way –
All this is knows, but will not tell
To those who cannot question well
The spirit that inhabits it:
It talks according \to/ the wit
Of its companions, and no more
Is heard that has been felt before
By those who tempt it to betray
These secrets of an elder day. –
But, sweetly as it’s answers will
Flatter hands of perfect skill,
It keeps its highest holiest tone
For our beloved Jane alone. –

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Loveday Dewfall

    Thanks for the entire text of “With a Guitar. To Jane”. I might set it to music.

  • Ingrid Stevens

    Thank you, Paul, for this most interesting article. I absolutely love these moments of unexpected learning that I find through this blog. Also thanks for the reference to the website on Shelley’s Ghost. It his, however, the www. didn’t work.

  • Thanks for this very engaging post, and especially for taking the trouble to give us the entirety of “With a Guitar. To Jane”

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