Monday, December 3, 2012

On not finishing books...without guilt...

It may be a feature of ageing but I am developing a wholly guilt free attitude to not finishing books!

Today I decided not to finish Ann Wroe's 'Being Shelley'. It is very well written, approaching Shelley from 'inside out' as a poet first and foremost rather than as a biography of a man from which poetry occasionally surfaces amongst the complex to-ing and fro-ing of a life. It wants to rehabilitate Shelley as a 'metaphysical' poet and puts significant emphasis both on his indebtedness to the Greeks, most especially Plato, and to his experience of transcendence: an objective Beauty that stalks his life - illuminating and tantalising in turn.

But at 380 pages it is simply too long (and too diffuse) - example piles upon example until you are left simply saying, 'Yes, yes I get it...and...' This 'and' being what does this mean, not for Shelley, but for us, the reader? Does this metaphysical focus change how we see things? Does it shift the possibilities that we are presented with and how? Does the poetry legislate a new world (as Shelley hoped it would)? To none of which is there any answer.

I was sitting on the train and realised that there was an essay by the poet, Kathleen Raine, 'A Defence of Shelley's Poetry' in her 'Defending Ancient Springs' that, re-reading it on reaching home, says in seventeen pages more, and says  it, sadly, better that Wroe does in the two hundred and fifty plus pages I had managed to work my way through.

Contemplating why this might be so, I sensed the answer was in conviction. Kathleen was defending Shelley's poetry as a way of singing about how the world is. Ann Wroe is obviously sympathetic to Shelley but is apologetic about writing a book that focuses (in a diffuse way) on his metaphysics and shelters this behind a diffusion of examples, as if we should be overwhelmed by them rather than convinced! Nor is there any background - what Shelley is finding in Plato of such relevance is hinted at but never shown, as if being a Platonist might be some form of embarrassment!

One more for the Oxfam shop...

I did, however, in passing realise why Shelley was a poet so well loved in India - Tagore comes to mind - because he had such a metaphysical mind and a way of making abstract thought sing. The world is a playful veiling of a deeper reality and the sensing of that, the allowing the silence of that to speak through the rhythm of poetry was at the heart of Shelley's art.

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