SHELLEY: The Pursuit by Richard Holmes

SHELLEY: The Pursuit

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Although this is the first full-scale biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley since 1940, running well over 700 pages, it is a dull and uninspired work. Even if it does have everything else, what it lacks--style, focus--is an insurmountable handicap. Holmes has compiled such an enormous mountain of data, with extensive documentation from memoirs, journals and correspondence, that one knows the schedules, expenditures and swings of mood of Shelley and his circle virtually from week to week. Needless to say, this is no swooning pantywaist of a poet, but a strong-minded visionary committed to atheism, vegetarianism, free love and republicanism. (All of which can be traced, Holmes implies, to his career at Eton when he refused to fag for the older boys.) Among the scholarly controversies that Holmes grapples with are the purported ""assassination"" attempt on Shelley in Wales in 1813 (an exceedingly small nit to pick, and rather badly told), the mystery of ""the Neapolitan child"" of whom Shelley is indisputably the father but whose mother's identity has never been satisfactorily established, and the relations (sexual?) in his two triangular menages--first with child-wife Harriet Westbrook and Oxford chum T. J. Hogg; later, with Mary Godwin and her half-sister Claire Clairmont. Holmes intends to establish for the first time Claire's ""full and proper place in Shelley's life"" but he hedges even this question. In his final paragraph, Holmes implies strongly that Shelley sailed into that squall with all deliberation. But that's no problem with Holmes--he's all caution and innuendo. This is a journeyman portrait, meticulous to no purpose, with the biographer so far removed from his creation that Shelley never seems whole or spirited--Shelley: The Pursuit never quite catches up with him.

Pub Date: May 23rd, 1975
ISBN: 1590170377
Publisher: Dutton