There are many stories of the brawling, drunken nature of the 1960s beat poets. Some modern poets are heralded as giving voice to the violent streets and are attached to the punk or hip-hop music scenes. For the most part, however, poets – especially classical poets – are typically portrayed as melancholy introverts or (thanks to Oscar Wilde) fey quipsters.
And then there’s Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Despite being portrayed in a rather bizarre fashion in a rather bizarre 1986 film by Ken Russell, Shelley was apparently not in cahoots with actual demons.
He was a low-level member of the British aristocracy (his father was in Parliament) with a love of radical politics… not uncommon among the moneyed upper classes of the Victorian era.
He had significant family problems throughout his life, with multiple wives and alienation from the father and mother who raised him (as well as his siblings). He was reportedly a cad who seduced women and was known to borrow extensively from others without intent to repay. The one thing that made him particularly noteworthy, though, was his devotion to nonviolence.
His “The Masque of Anarchy” was an early work on nonviolent resistance. He was an avowed vegetarian. It would seem that of all of the famed historical poets, Shelley would be the last to resort to violence.
With the scene set, we now go to his elopement with what was to be his first wife, Harriet Westbrook:
They took a lodging, and Shelley immediately told the landlord who they were, what they had come for, and the exhaustion of their resources, and asked him if he would take them in, and advance them money to get married and to carry them on till they could get a remittance. This the man agreed to do, on condition that Shelley would treat him and his friends to a supper in honour of the occasion. It was arranged accordingly; but the man was more obtrusive and officious than Shelley was disposed to tolerate. The marriage was concluded, and in the evening Shelley and his bride were alone together, when the man tapped at their door. Shelley opened it, and the landlord said to him — “It is customary here at weddings for the guests to come in, in the middle of the night, and wash the bride with whisky.” “I immediately,” said Shelley, “caught up my brace of pistols, and pointing them both at him, said to him, — ‘I have had enough of your impertinence; if you give me any more of it I will blow your brains out;’ on which he ran or rather tumbled down stairs, and I bolted the doors.”Memoirs of Shelley by Thomas Love Peacock
History does not record what the results are from being bathed in whiskey on your wedding night… because the perverted landlord and his friend did not return.
Apparently nonviolence only goes so far.
Question of the night: What’s one of your favorite poems or poets?